Yep, time once more for Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I opine upon a handful of recent comics and/or graphic novel releases, most of which should be on sale at a bricks-and-mortar or online merchant near you.

Script: Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon; Art: Chris Samnee
Dark Horse; $14.99

The signal can’t be stopped, and apparently neither can the steady stream of miniseries and graphic novels based on the short-lived cult Sci-Fi western. I had high hopes for this one in particular when I first heard about it; it promised to shed some light on one of the most nagging of the untied loose ends left in the wake of the cancellation of the TV show and the non-performance of the film at the box office, i.e. the mysterious backstory of one of the show’s most interesting characters: Shepherd Derrial Book, the holy man of peace who was equally adept at meting out punishment to those who threatened his friends and played perfectly by Ron (Det. Harris on Barney Miller) Glass. On the TV show, they never really got around to letting us see what made him what he was, and he was barely there in the feature film, so there’s a definite air of unfinished business surrounding this graphic novel project- and as if to verify that, no less than series creator Joss Whedon collaborates (read: back-seat drives) with brother Zack to finally let us see behind the curtain of the Shepherd. I’m sure there’s also a lot of “beat the boots”-style thinking as well; as Firefly fandom has multiplied, rabbit-like, there has, I’d bet (I don’t really follow this sort of thing), been a ton of fanfic versions, and I’m sure the desire to get the definitive take out there is a motivating factor. That, and Browncoat money.

So, is it successful, I hear you ask- well, answereth I, yes and no. Please be aware that I may spoil a bit here- I don’t want to, and I’ll try not to, but it’s almost impossible to discuss the story without dropping some, so I apologize in advance. Book’s background turns out to be exactly as I’d imagine everyone would suppose it is- no real surprises, but no false character moves either. I was a bit surprised that they go straight from him leaving the monastery to his encounter with Kaylee that ends up with him boarding the Serenity; I suppose I’d imagined that he’d wandered the Earth, so to speak, before joining the crew. I thought it was fairly obvious to anyone who’d paid attention that he was ex-Alliance and had soured on the service in some fashion; as it turns out that’s only half correct but there was still something about the whole arc of his rise and fall and rise again that didn’t quite cohere for me. Maybe it will do so on subsequent readings. None of this, by the way, is a deal-breaker; if you’re like me and were dying to know more about Book, well, your wish will be granted- I did think it was clever, if a bit hard to parse at first, how they worked their way backwards Memento-like as they revealed more about him. Another reason why this is well worth your time is the presence of up-and-coming art star Chris (Thor, the Mighty Avenger) Samnee; his visuals are more inspired by the likes of Toth, Corben and Mazzuchelli and less by the likes of Lee and Liefeld, and this is something which I approve highly of. He tells the story with a crispness that keeps it moving right along. That said, there are some dodgy likenesses here, but not so much that it becomes annoying. Overall, I found this a mild disappointment, but perhaps my expectations were too high; adjust yours accordingly and I think all but the most hardheaded of Browncoats will like it.  By the way, you can see another Firefly story, and get a feel for what this is like, by the younger Whedon and Samnee team right here at USA Today.

Script/Art: Howard Chaykin
DC Comics, $4.99

While others pay lip service to writing “adult” comics, Howard Chaykin has put his money where his mouth is many, many times- giving us wit and sophistication where others just want to deliver tits and ass and a bit of the old ultra-violence. Sure, yeah, Chaykin’s delivered that plenty of times too, but he usually plays fair with the Big Two’s most iconic licenses and it don’t get no bigger than Batman, and to a lesser extent, Catwoman. WHat we have here is your basic light adventure romp, with Batman and Catwoman bantering and bickering as if they were Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, as they strive to preventing the Cavalier, yeah, you read that right, the Cavalier, from fulfilling his scheme to steal the Wayne Foundation’s pension fund. Not the most innovative plot out there, especially compared to the muddled morass that is Morrison’s Bat-template, but here it’s not so much the story as it is the execution…and nobody does this sort of thing like our boy Chaykin. No one even tries to do this kind of story anymore, outside maybe Brubaker and Cooke and their noir fixations. If nothing else, making a lame c-lister like the Cavalier as interesting and charismatic as he is here is quite a noteworthy achievement. He also does well by Catwoman- while I thought Will Pfeifer (who really should be writing comics for someone somewhere) did an great job on her most recent series, I cant help but wonder what would have resulted if he had taken over her book instead of piddling around with Hawkwoman. The last time Catwoman was involved in a tale like this was when Darwyn Cooke did Selina’s Big Score. It also helps that Chaykin the writer has always had Chaykin the artist illustrating his scripts; while he’s perhaps lost a step over the last 20 plus years, he still knows how to tell a story with snap and still has a way with the sexay ladies. I just wish that someone, and I don’t know if it’s Howard or colorist Jesus Aburto, would lay off the Photoshop blur and spotlight effects; they’re used so much they become distracting and annoying. I know they’re just shooting for a modern look, but as in the latest Star Trek movie, a little goes a long way. So- if you just can’t conceive of a Batman story that doesn’t have to tie in and be beholden to with all the other Incorporated titles (see what I did there?), then you probably won’t be too excited about this mostly standalone one shot actioner. But if you like a ripping good yarn, full of snappy banter, good art and a surprising rehabilitation of a heretofore lackluster Bat-villain, well, drop the five bucks and I bet you won’t regret it.

Script: Kieron Gillen; Art: Salvador Espin
Marvel Comics, $3.99

I’m not an X-Men reader; haven’t really been since the early 80s, although I did give Grant Morrison’s pretty OK New X-Men a look-see a while back. While the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne years were full of enthusiasm and were above the average of the day, eventually creative conflicts had their way and Claremont was soon left to his own devices, becoming increasingly insular and leaden in his scripting, even as he let his cast sprawl and descend into a morass of time-travel cliches and sodden melodramatics, and his successors felt compelled to carry on in the same fashion, in collaboration with a parade of artists who epitomized the worst excesses of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Pretty much put me off for life, with very few exceptions. However, since I’m always on the lookout for newish books to discuss here at CoaCSJ, I thought I’d give this newest X-book a try and relay my findings to you. Also piquing my interest was the presence of Kieron Gillen; I haven’t been following his recent Marvel superhero stuff all that closely, but I did enjoy his Phonogram series and thought I’d see what he brought to the proceedings. What he seems to bring, though, sorry to say, is the same thing pretty much nearly every writer who’s tried to assay an X-Book- sodden melodrama. Everything and everybody is just so damn serious. I guess that’s how we know they’re not fucking around. Which is not to say this is poorly written; far from it- it’s exactly what X-fans have come to expect, and by god Gillen’s gonna give it to them. Anyway, the “Hope” in the title is one Hope Summers, adopted daughter of Nathan, granddaughter, I assume, of Scott (Cyclops) in some sort of typically convoluted time-travel alternate dimension/reality type thing. I swear, there’s a 6 page explanation that I think cost me a little bit of my immortal soul when I read it. She has the mutant power, if I understand it correctly (and that’s never a given), to generate feelings of hope and confidence in people. She would have a career in sports psychology, I’d think. Anyway, apparently mutants are thin on the ground in the Marvel Universe these days, and she’s in charge of a small group of newly discovered mutant teens, who are being flown to Tokyo to rendezvous with Cyclops’ team there. As you can tell, this presupposes a lot of familiarity with current X-continuity. Before they can arrive at their destination, they receive a backup request from Cyke and Wolverine, who’s there just because, I guess, and Rogue (she was piloting the craft, did I mention that?) flies them to the scene of the occurrence just in time to get involved in a fracas with an unfortunate fellow, an artist no less, who’s quite mad and is also capable of become some sort of mutated biomechanical mutant creature, all the while rambling about becoming his art and how he’s the light and other atmospheric-sounding stuff. He’s attempting to dispatch our girl by projecting a nifty giant black dome over their section of Tokyo just in time for the cliffhanger ending. This sort of thing is the bread and butter of mainstream superheroics, especially X-related superheroics, and to call this cliched or dull is kinda missing the point. Gillen’s doing what he has to do while playing in their sandbox, kinda like Fraction’s doing over at Incincible Iron Man, and it’s a little naive to think he’d be looking to introduce anything new to the mix. This extends to the art as well; while it’s a bit haphazardly inked and the facial expressions are hit-and-miss, Mister Espin still delivers exactly what fans of this sort of thing want and expect. It’s fast-paced and dynamic, vaguely manga-inspired, and doesn’t force the dedicated X-reader to readjust any of their priorities in any fashion whatsoever. Kinda like fast food, if you think about it, and I know that’s hardly a fresh metaphor so what say I just quit while I’m ahead- this is exactly what fans of this sort of thing want, no more no less. If the shoe fits, please wear it and walk over there, please.

The All Purpose Review Writing Music List: Van Morrison- Veedon Fleece; Little Feat- Hotcakes and Outtakes; Pearl Jam- Vitalogy; Traffic- Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, Nilsson- Pussy Cats.

That’s all I have for this time out, as always, thanks for reading and see you next time. Review inquiries and so on and so forth: johnnybacardi AT gmail.