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WHAT IS THE BUY PILE?

Every week Hannibal Tabu (journalist/novelist/poet/jackass) goes to a comic book store called Comics Ink in Culver City, CA (Overland and Braddock — hey Steve and Jason) and grabs a whole lotta comics. These periodicals are quickly sorted into two piles — the “buy” pile (a small pile most weeks, comprised of books that are too good to not own) and the “read” pile (often huge, often including comics that are really crappy but have some value to stay abreast of). Thursdays (Diamond monopolistic practices willing), you’ll be able to get thoughts about all of that … something like this …

THE BUY PILE FOR MARCH 15TH, 2006

Body Bags: 3 The Hard Way (Image Comics)

Shock was the first response at seeing this issue, after an absence from the stands that could give “Battle Chasers” a run for its money (just kidding — nothing will ever be as MIA as “Battle Chasers,” which is why that joke never gets old). However, upon opening up this collection of shorts (one apparently new piece and two previously published stories from little-seen Dark Horse special projects), you’re once again dipped into the world of “body baggers” Mack (also known as “Clownface”) and Panda — urban and largely ethnic hired killers who work as much outside the law (as assassins) as they do within (as bail bondsmen and bounty hunters). The course language (one word in particular rankled this reviewer) may push some aside, and it’s surely got its fanboy titillation moments (with the over-endowed cheesecake angles on Panda), but there’s nothing more outlandish than an average episode of “Alias.” We get a glimpse at supporting characters like Sheriff Sinn and get the regular doses of extreme cartoonish (literally) violence and sass. A bit pricey at six bucks (based on the pages of story available), but entertaining nonetheless and a refreshing return to form for the long-awaited, anticipated Jason Pearson.

DMZ #5 (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Castaway intern-turned-reporter Matty Roth is finding a place for himself on the contested island of Manhattan, centerpiece for an America in the grips of a much more lethal civil war than its nineteenth century counterpart. In the first couple of pages, however, he’s treated to a New York City tradition — a home invasion robbery — that leads him on a “Crosstown” chase (the name of the story is “Crosstown,” by the way) to retrieve two items of incredible importance to him (in his own words, “left the laptop, left the phone … what the f**k” and then “what kind of person rips off a parka but leaves behind a laptop? Stupid question. That jacket’s my life. Something that stops sniper fire is worth way more than a laptop”). As the chase goes on, Roth is confronted with his nascent notoriety (“People know about ‘The Journalist,’ which makes me feel a little weird. Simultaneously a kind of local celebrity … and a total outsider”) and some landmarks of this dystopian metropolis, even glimpsing at the impossible just beyond the Lincoln Tunnel. A fascinating done-in-one story, and well worth the time and money.

Annihilation Prologue #1 (Marvel Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. Featuring the kind of gripping and motivated writing that “Rann/Thanagar War” lacked, Keith Giffen uses mostly Nova (Richard Rider) as a perspective character to show that things are getting bad, fast, and that means a lot of bloodshed for a lot of stellar powers. Likewise, Scott Kolins and Ariel Olivetti’s artwork shows a sense of grandeur and jaw-dropping scale, while maintaining an essentially non-terrestrial slant on things. One of Marvel’s oldest threats has come up with a new idea, and it’s bad news like Eli coming courtesy of Three Dog Night. The way this worked (and that “R/T W” ultimately didn’t) was showing the effect of this crisis (hahahaha) on relatively normal people. A newly smart Drax the Destroyer and his human charge/”owner” Cammi are so much flotsam caught in the Annihilation Wave, a virtually unstoppable hostile force murdering its way across known space. Rider’s experience shows that the Nova Corps are certainly nothing like a certain organization from Oa, putting a distinctively Heinlen-esque spin on their bloody fate. The story grips you from Thanos’ enigmatic moment in the beginning to a poignant and painful moment for Richard Ryder near the end. The pages with Ronan and the Silver Surfer seemed a bit more enigmatic than they needed to be (you can get away with that stuff using Thanos), and the last page reveal has whispers of Grant Morrison’s treatment of Darkseid. Add in the wonderfully helpful “Xandar Worldmind Nova Corps Database” entries at the end, and it’s all around fun stuff, fascinating to read and possibly the most interesting stellar adventures since Waid and Kitson’s Reboot Period got its launch.

Infinite Crisis Secret Files and Origins (DC Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. The grand majority of the “Infinite Crisis” books have read like fan fiction gone awry, but in this surprisingly compelling three part story called “Heaven,” Marv Wolfman (with layout help from Dan Jurgens and finishes from Jerry Ordway, Cam Smith, Art Thibert and Nelson) simply hauls ass like a dump truck full of strippers, making some sense of the madness. The central conceit — that the “blissful” reward for Earth Prime’s Superboy, Earth-2’s Superman and Alexander Luthor was not a heaven, but a kind of hell — seems somewhat more logical when held up to the original “Crisis on Infinite Earths” ending based on this work, and even lends credence to the theory that Wolfman wrote in an “undo button” all along. As always, the anemic “secret files” are long on narrative and short on detail, but Wolfman’s compelling narrative looking at the slow deterioration of two Clark Kents and one too-quickly grown Alexander Luthor can at least give the reader a way to connect with and empathize with these characters, which was surely missing from the “main event.” Great to see the old school come back to show us how it’s done.

Punisher vs. Bullseye #5 (Marvel Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. First of all this issue, the final one in a mini that is so entertaining that it’s a tragedy for it to end, is mean spirited, hilarious and openly manipulative. That’s all a good thing. Second of all, Way and Dillon have found a balance between them that’s simply a symphony of craft (with such effective coloring choices form Dan Kemp … great flashbacks, and that final page is a perfect poster). There’s just so much to enjoy in this issue, told in such a straightforward but clever way … really good stuff, and Way and Dillon are the new … well, pretty much the new Ennis and Dillon, to be honest, and Way’s grasp on Frank Castle is just about perfect, mixing the macabre humor with the horror of his life. Fantastic.

Superman/Shazam: First Thunder #4 (DC Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. This will probably go down as the best modern characterization of Billy Batson, with DC’s two most powerful heroes forging a relationship out of the ashes of tragedy. Seeing Cap at work, really going at people with just a fraction of the power at his command, was great (even if the media coverage didn’t agree). There was some really well done stuff here, with the eighth page emotional crisis and the wonderful, tender last page moment between two civilian identities. Joshua Middleton’s highly animated artwork really sold it, allowing both Superman’s power (yelling at the wizard Shazam was quite a surprise, given he knows how Robin turned out) and Marvel’s sense of wonder to shine through, even at his lowest points. The whole mini has been close to the mark, but this final issue really pulled out all the stops, kind of making the first three issues superfluous (the “how” of Sivana’s choice doesn’t ultimately matter — to him or anybody else). Nicely done.

Four #28 (Marvel Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. It should be noted that this reviewer is not a fan of the FF. I find their powers (especially Sue’s) fascinating, but the whole “first family” thing always seemed lame. But in this issue (which is wholly without Johnny and Ben), the core of Reed and Sue’s complicated lives is brought to the fore, as they both are there for other people and show a great deal of loyalty and tenderness. Sue gets to show some of the strength that makes her the real heart and soul of the team, dispensing a rough kind of justice that’s wholly right, while Reed turns off his brain long enough to really stand by the side of a dying man. Probably the best individual issue of any FF title that this reviewer has ever read, and a huge triumph given that this series has gone from pointless to inane and everywhere in between.

The Atheist #3 (Image Comics)

Another long-missing title calls it a comeback, as Antoine Sharpe reveals some surprising things about himself in working towards a solution for allegedly deceased spirits inhabiting living bodies and taking over the city of Winnepeg. The apparent mastermind behind it all is a somewhat kooky choice, but the whole issue works well as Sharpe and his reluctant Agent Scully stand in, Ms. Nguyen, go off the grid and get discovered anyway (wasting a perfectly good cell phone in the process). Hester steps up his game with tight and insightful dialogue, and just enough stuff happened to make this issue worthwhile … but it could be just a bit peppier in pacing.

Planetary Brigade #2 (Boom! Studios)

It should be noted that Diamond Comics failed to ship any copies of this issue to Comics Ink in Culver City, and issues no explanation, which is apparently a common occurrence. The joys of wielding a monopoly. Fortunately, Boom! Studios’ talented publicity flack Gianluca Glazer was kind enough to forward over a PDF of the issue, allowing it to be reviewed — it was a guaranteed purchase today anyway. That faith was not unwarranted, as the entire team takes on a crisis of interdimensional proportions with some amazingly effective team dynamics and simply delightful dialogue. For example, as Captain Valor and the bat-analogue The Grim Knight fly together, the latter says, “It’s this kind of thing that makes people think we’re gay.” That’s just one of scores of examples of well-done and amusing banter held herein, skewering and upholding the tenets of superhero comics at the exact same time (think about the world of heroes in “Justice League Europe” where the Extremists came from … this will remind you of that kind of lunacy amongst a team). Moreover, the highly difficult choice team mystic Third Eye makes (imagine Raven on the Titans without the racy clothes) is played with great skill, not bringing down the entire issue but receiving appropriate attention. Just excellent work, all around.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS?

With all those jumps, this is already the best week of 2006, by a huge margin.

THIS WEEK’S READ PILE

Honorable Mentions:

“Seven Soldier: Bulleteer” #4 almost made it, with store owner Steve’s favorite trash talk. “Birds of Prey” #92 lacked only a smidge more detail, as its fast and furiously paced story showed a much edgier team. “Ultimate Extinction” #3 was very, very close to coming home, with a ruthless take on the SIlver Surfer, a well integrated effort across the Ultimate Universe and some really smart passages. “Superman” #650 was a pleasant surprise with a somewhat similar riff to the upcoming movie that gives Kara Zor-El a chance to shine and gives Lex Luthor a wonderful bit of reasonable doubt … but still not good enough to make the jump. “Runaways” #14 left more questions than it answered (in a bad way), as the team just kind of stood around. Even the pages of “Green Arrow” #60 were solid, but we did get a call from “Ex Machina,” saying “we want our premise back!”

No, just … no …

“New Universe: Justice” carried on the new works’ tradition of being boring and having bad art. There’s a section of “Teen Titans Annual” #1 that could have easily been lifted directly from “Smallville” fan fiction. The teamwork was effective in “JLA Classified” #18 but the artwork didn’t carry enough of the weight. “Ultimate X-Men” #68 was downright Whedon-esque in a talky, tricky issue that ultimately did very little. “Painkiller Jane” was somewhat enjoyable in a mean-spirited way, but colored very darkly and not very visually compelling (which was strange coming from two artists). “Nightwing” #118 seemed a bit too directionless, despite a doppleganger and moving to New York City.

SO, HOW BAD WAS IT?

Given that so many of its number were good enough to get purchased, it wasn’t so bad.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Overall a great week for comics in general.

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