A Month of Wednesdays | 'Endless Wartime,' 'Death of the Family' and more

Avengers: Endless Wartime (Marvel Entertainment): Marvel's new line of original graphic novels — note the "Marvel OGN" logo on the spine — is off to a pretty strong start with this continuity-light Warren Ellis-written, Mike McKone-drawn story of an Avengers squad facing a new form of semi-sentient weapon evolved from a generation-old attempt to marry Nazi science with Norse magic.

That's a good conflict for an Avengers comic, as the team includes a Nazi-fighting hero and a Norse god, and, better still, both Captain America and Thor were tied to the this new weapon's origin.

Ellis does his usual fine job of mixing current science, speculative next-level science, elements of our zeitgeist and corporate superheroes with something that feels appropriate, cool and like the writer has something to say. Additionally, he has a pretty decent handle on the characters, and does a relatively good job of singling out particular voices (this is the first time in a long time that I've read an Avengers comic where  everyone didn't talk like Brian Michael Bendis).

Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Wolverine, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and Hawkeye, who reflects Matt Fraction's version, are a bit of a rag-tag group, but they seem to be assembled primarily for their military backgrounds. "Do you know, I just realized I'm the only non-soldier in the room," Tony Stark says at one point, and Captain Marvel sneers back, "That's right, Tony. You're just an ex-arms manufacturer in a metal death suit."

Later, the Hulk shows up, dropped on the Avengers as a sort of bomb when they rebel against S.H.I.E.L.D.'s appropriation of the new weaponry -- which might bring us to another reason this particular cast was chosen: It's the movie Avengers, plus Wolverine, star of his own movies and plenty of X-Men ones, and Captain Marvel (while Wolvie wears an all-black, mask-less outfit similar to his movie costumes, Iron Man  is dressed in his Marvel NOW! black-and-gold armor, rather than something more cinema-friendly).

McKone provides the best art of his career, handling mask-less conversational and character moments and big, spectacular super-powered air battles with equal aplomb. Ellis and McKone are reliable pros, though, so the contributor who most surprised me was Rian Hughes, who designs the book. Simply put, this is the best-looking Marvel book I've seen in a long time, from the trade dress to the spine to the front and back covers to the end pages, the spiraling design elements and infinite loop of Avengers logos on the inside cover pages reflecting the point about the never-ending, self-sustaining cycle of warfare.

One bit really bugged me, however: The book contains an introduction, which is cool; I think all graphic novels should, particularly collections. And this one comes from Clark Gregg, who played minor roles in a couple of Marvel movies and now anchors the Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series that the comics Internet seems to not like all that much. His intro  is seven paragraphs long, the first five of which are about him and how honored he is to be writing it, with only the final two discussing Endless Wartime (and part of one of those is spent on thanking Marvel people for the opportunity to play a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent).

Gregg is a sort of a weird choice here, because, on the one hand, he seems to have been selected as a celebrity spokesman, here to say, "Hey, kids! Comics aren't just for kids -- grown-ups in Hollywood like them, too!" (You used to see a lot of introductions like this back in the 1980s) But Gregg is really only a celebrity, at least in comics circles, because he played a character in movies based on comic books, after about a decade of comic book superhero movies being a reliable money-generating Hollywood genre.

So I couldn't quite figure out what he was doing here. After those first two pages, though, the rest of the book's pretty damn good.

Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family (DC Comics): This is easily one of the best Joker sagas in years — perhaps since Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo's 1988 A Death in the Family, which the title so boldly alludes to. Part of that was achieved simply because DC invested a Batman versus Joker story with so much occasion, forbidding all use of the character for an entire year after his September 2011 face-flaying incident (and these days, a year is a really rather extraordinary time to go without a Joker story, given that DC has a good dozen or so Batman-related books each month), and then, upon his return, devoting a five-part story to the encounter.

It's writer Scott Snyder who makes it work. He takes two recent portrayals of The Joker, the master planner that Heath Ledger played in The Dark Knight -- it's that prepared-for-any-eventuality aspect that makes him seem like Batman's archenemy and opposite number more than anything else -- and Grant Morrison's idea of a Joker who constantly reinvents new versions of himself with which to menace the world.

This version of The Joker has twin goals: to strip away the masks Batman wears to get to the pure essence of the character, and to "fix" him by ridding him of all his various sidekicks and hangers-on. Both are visually literalized in his appearance, through his skinned-off face, which he wears as a slowly spoiling mask, and by his handyman outfit, toolbelt and work gloves.

His master plan for destroying Batman's family involves two big, sinister jokes — what exactly is on those silver serving trays, what exactly is written in his little black bat book — and Snyder has Batman ultimately triumph by playing a similar joke on The Joker.

Read serially, as it was originally published, there were no doubt frustrations, but read all at once, it's a can't-put-it-down superhero horror thriller that actually lives up to its hype.

Greg Capullo provides the pencil art, and while I don't think he's the greatest Batman artist, not even of those currently drawing the character (Patrick Gleason does a better face-less Joker wearing his own face), the fact that he's been drawing the book this long is itself quite impressive, and, unlike a lot of the artists that Morrison worked with, he doesn't get between the writer and the reader, which are two big points in his favor.

The hardcover comes with a fancy, mostly transparent dust-jacket, with the "masked" Joker on the cover, and, beneath it, on the cover of the book, the skinned version — who, it's worth noting, never actually shows up in the book. It's a rare example of restraint at DC, and, like their refusal to use The Joker for so long to build to this storyline, it pays off.

JLA Earth 2: The Deluxe Edition (DC): Given the subject matter of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's 2000 original graphic novel — a millennial reinvention of Gardner Fox and company's Earth 3 Crime Syndicate of America, the evil Justice League of a parallel dimension — it's easy to see why DC might want to make the book newly available in a new edition in the midst of the Forever Evil event series. That is, of course, Geoff Johns and David Finch's take on Morrison and Quitely's take on those same stories.

If I were Johns or Finch, though, I'd be a little leery of my publisher reminding everyone how good Morrison and Quitely's version of the story was. Perhaps the creative climax of Morrison's 1997-2000 JLA run, and certainly the best-looking passage of it, Earth 2 ultimately revolved around some of the meta-fictional rules of the DC Universe that Morrison had begun playing with as early as his eighth issue of JLA (wherein The Key, knowing the Justice League always wins, attempts to harness the energy of their victory to power his mad science machine). Here, Morrison presents two different universes with their own immutable laws: On the JLA's Earth, good always triumphs over evil, while on the CSA's Earth, evil always triumphs over good.

So just as the CSA can't conquer the DC Universe, Superman and his friends can't save the parallel world. As clever ideas go, that's not a bad one to use revolve a big, novel-length superhero adventure around.

The book is also notable for presenting one of the most bad-ass moments in Aquaman's career and one of the most bad-ass moments in Martian Manhunter's, the best designs ever applied to the CSA characters, and pages and pages of Quitely applying his unique style to huge, statuesque forms of the DC's greatest superheroes.

In addition to a bigger size, the Deluxe Edition includes 43 pages of back-up material, including Morrison's costume designs and script and Quitely's thumbnails and cover process.

The Joker: The Death of the Family (DC): Remember how I said that part of the reason Snyder's "Death of the Family" Batman story arc was so successful was because of the restraint he and DC evinced when it came to not using The Joker for a year?  Well, here's the book that undercuts all of that, a 456-page collection of Joker appearances from nine different titles featuring key parts of the storyline from Batman and pretty much all of the ancillary material. It's your "Death of the Family" tie-in checklist, in hardcover graphic novel format.

Of these, only Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and company's contribution from the pages of Batman and Robin is really worth seeking out on its own merits. Not only does it feature the best art in the book, but Gleason and his inking team of Mick Gray and Keith Champagne manage to present this new Joker, who, remember, had his own face flayed off and is now wearing it as a mask, as truly horrifying; it's spookily, grotesquely realistic, and that's before you even consider all of the insects (the story, in which The Joker captures and mentally tortures Robin Damian, is set at a zoo).

The rest of the stories, which are broken up by character rather than title, range from mediocre (Nightwing, Batman from Detective Comics) to barely readable (Catwoman, Red Robin and Red Hood), or fall somewhere in between (Harley Quinn). Cumulatively, they sort of take away from the actual story, as Joker's feats become harder and harder to swallow the more times we see him pull off such labor-intensive things as, say, overthrowing Gotham City Zoo, digging up everyone from Haley's Circus who has ever died and posing them and so on. And that's in addition to capturing a half-dozen superheroes all on the same night. Several of the story beats seem to contradict key details from the storyline they're meant to be feeding into.

It does provide the not-very-pressing question of what so-and-so was up to during the events unfolding in Batman, though, or how exactly The Joker captured which Bat-Family member to sit around the dinner table for the climax. Best-suited for Batman super-fans and completists who made the jump from pamphlets to trades, there's not much here for a casual reader, save a curiosity-sating browsing experience, a sort of snap-shot of the Batman-line over the course of a few months.

Palookaville #21 (Drawn and Quarterly): Despite bearing an issue number, this is no comic book, but a bound, hardcover, 100-page anthology in a beautiful little six-inch by eight-inch format, so handsomely designed that you may want one just to leave on your coffee table or set on your bookshelf to impress guests.

I don't know why you wouldn't also want to read it, though.

The first of the book's three sections is part four of the ongoing "Clyde Fans" story, involving two brothers and a disappearing business. I've missed at least two of these four parts, but while there's a continuity being observed, its hardly too late to jump on. Seth is, as always, concerned as much with mood, tone and feeling as with plot and character, and there's never a good reason to avoid drinking in his beautifully drawn buildings and the cartoon characters that walk past or dwell in them.

That's followed by a collection of  rubber stamp diary comics, named for the fact that Seth creates them in large part using rubber stamps. One of the problems with a daily diary comics, he notes in his introduction, is how labor intensive they are, and how one ends up drawing the same things over and over. One way around this, of course, is to reuse images you've drawn and stored in your computer. Seth is, of course, old school — so old school that "old school" seems far too knew a term to describe him — and so he has created rubber stamps that produce images of his house, him walking, his profile and, of course, panel-borders, and through a combination of those and drawing and lettering, he's created diary comics (I liked the idea as much or more than the execution; most of the stories merely involves Seth taking walks and thinking, which could grow tedious without Seth's art to perk them up).

Finally, there's the first installment of a new autobiographical feature. Titled "Nothing Lasts," it sees Seth talking us through his childhood, using the many places he lived growing up as triggers for memories and anecdotes. The panels are tiny — there are often as many as 20 per page — but they're also perfect. It's a heartbreaking story, not simply because of the negative emotional content, but more so because of how effectively Seth evokes feelings of happy childhood moments lost forever ... although I suppose the ability to evoke them so strongly in print means he can resurrect them, if only temporarily and, perhaps, if only for others.

The Smurfs Christmas (Papercutz): One of the few complaints I ever hear raised against Papercutz's reprints of Peyo's original Smurfs comics regards their tiny size, with their tiny panels and tiny lettering: They're great, fun all-ages comics, but this particular format is better suited to deft little hands and  still-sharp little eyes.

Well, one advantage of the small format that has become apparent until this particular installment is that they should make for perfect stocking-stuffers. Sure, this might be the seventeenth Smurfs book, but it's not exactly a complex narrative one needs to start at the very beginning to follow, and this one is the best smurfed suited for stocking smurfing stuffing, given its contents.

There are six short stories in here, the two book-ending the collection being straight Christmas stories. In the first, Gargamel poisons a sick Santa Claus and captures his sleigh in an attempt to find the Smurf village, but a few Smurfs revive the original Santa and set after the fake. In the last one, Santa forces Gargamel to be good. In between are a few stories tangentially related to the season — two involve snow, another a magic pine tree—while only one is a complete outlier, involving a cannibalistic ogre that wants to eat Gargamel.

At least, I don't think that one has anything to do with Christmas or the holiday season, but I've never been to Peyo's Belgium, and don't know much about their customs, so perhaps the cannibalistic ogre is a part of some local Christmas legend.

Tropic of the Sea (Vertical): Satoshi Kon may be better known stateside for his anime films,  many of which played theatrically rather widely: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika.

This 1990 manga, complete in one volume, reads an awful lot like a movie as well, but not like any of the Kon movies in the above paragraphs. Pitting a handful of teenagers allied with an ailing grandfather, a cute little sister and dog against a greedy corporate developer and the hero's own sell-out dad, the characters and tone of the manga might feel a little like family-friendly '80s Hollywood, something Steven Spielberg or Joe Dante might direct,  but the particulars are strictly Japanese.

Yosuke's family has long maintained a shrine in their small, seaside village, caring for a mysterious object that some of them — Yosuke and his grandfather, for example — believe to be a mermaid's egg, entrusted to them on the condition they return it to the sea at the appointed time. Yosuke's father is not a believer, and he's been trying to turn their sleepy little town into a booming, big city, with the money, interest and backing of a big developer.

While the sides clash over the future of the town, Yosuke finds himself in the middle of a fight for the fate of his town, quite literally so when the egg is removed from the shrine and the sea seems set on taking a deadly revenge.

The character design and the clash of the fantastic with the mundane might evoke Kon's film work, but this is a more straightforward and uncomplicated work, a striking coming-of-age melodrama with a moral warning against choosing money and ambition over the natural world, sold with a powerful encounter with an elemental symbol-creature at the climax — Kon's mermaid is awfully far removed from Disney's Little one, looking far more like a sea deity.

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