If there's one thing Comic-Con International in San Diego is good for every year, it's re-energizing me to read more comics. I think I've read more in the last week than I did in the previous month. While I won't be reviewing them all, there's a nice batch of Image Comics titles here I can talk about. Some of these came out last week, while some are coming out this week. We'll mix and match as we go along.
"The Mission" perplexes me. The ongoing series tells the story of a man who's been turned into an angel of death by Gabriel, sort of. He's fighting it, but learns that the only way to keep his family safe is to do as Gabriel says. But can he bring himself to kill along the way?
It's far too quick a read each month, for starters. You can read every word in every balloon and spend lots of time soaking up the art in every panel and be done five minutes later, while still leaving room for a quick crossword puzzle. As a trade, it'll read quickly, too, but perhaps the sheer volume of pages will help carry it.
Storywise, Jon and Erich Hoeber stretch my suspension of disbelief to its breaking point one issue, then give me a more reserved and interesting issue the next. This month, the sixth issue lets the series look inwards for a second, as we get more interesting interactions between characters "in the know." There's an internal battle here, and I find that meta-arc almost more interesting than the morality play of the month this series could be. Oddly, that's the reverse of the "100 Bullets" scenario, which I dug as a morality play and lost interest in as the meta arc grew to levels I couldn't keep track of.
And then there's a twist at the end that isn't surprising, if it's at all true.
Werther Dell'Edera's art is rock solid every month, stylized and simplified, yet telling the story strongly. It reminds me a lot of the artwork of Paul Azaceta, who you might remember from BOOM!'s "Potter's Field," amongst other books. With Arianna Florean's bright color palette, the book is easy to read, even in scenes bathed in shadows.
"The Mission" might wind up being one giant mind screw. While there are certainly fantastical elements to the story, it feels very "street level." When it has issues like this one that skip over the more tenuous parts of the story, it can be strong. I hope we get to see more of this internal struggle amongst The Mission's cast in the coming months.
MEANWHILE, IN KIRKMANISTAN...
Robert Kirkman has built a rather large wall for himself with "Invincible." The stakes have been raised so high so often that it's almost impossible for any issue to top the last. So when the city of Las Vegas is turned to glass in "Invincible" #81, it's almost impossible to get worked up over it. An entire city was leveled and transmuted to something else, and I didn't blink. After alien invasions and interstellar war and superpowered wars, one major city going bye-bye elicits only a shrug, even knowing that there's not a giant reset button waiting to be pushed.
Kirkman instead goes the other route, focusing on how Mark deals with losing that fight and suffering such immense death and damage. Not that Kirkman gives us 20 pages of talking heads or anything. This is still "Invincible," complete with a big rock 'em sock 'em fight scene in the middle. Along the way, Mark is coping questions things about himself and his world that nothing else ever made him consider before. The things that have happened to him now are building up. And we see Mark getting just a touch world-weary. I half-expected a panel of him dropping his costume into a garbage can in some random alley in New York City with him walking away. Kirkman isn't going there yet, but we'll see how he uses everything to change the game, as it were, with this series. I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Ryan Ottley and Cliff Rathburn continue to impress. The linework is tight, with well drawn characters proving that you don't need to trace from a photo to do comics well. In fact, I think it helps not to rely on that crutch. Ottley's style is unique, with an open line embellished by small crosshatching and feathering only where appropriate. It's not an overused stylistic tic. He has control of every page, knocking out panel borders to give the reader the feeling of action exploding beyond a limited frame. The rest of the time, Ottley sticks to squares and rectangles, a three or four tier structure that makes the book ridiculously easy to read. There's no confusing layouts of odd diagonals in this book. True, a character or two break outside of the panel borders, but it's just like the panels sans borders -- it's done for a reason and it works without looking cheap or cheesy.
In the end, "Invincible" feels confident. The creators are comfortable with the universe they've created, and the singularity of creativity in this title keeps things consistent. In fact, it's almost ridiculous that a book this strong has been this consistent for 81 issues. The only other titles I can think of in modern memory to have kept up that streak are "Usagi Yojimbo," "Savage Dragon," and "Ultimate Spider-Man." They benefitted from that consistancy, and I'm glad to see there's still a place in this world where creators aren't skipping across books with regularity. I love having six large hardcover books in a row on my bookshelf for this series with only two artists, basically, drawing the whole thing. It's the nature of the beast at Marvel and DC that creative teams don't stick with titles longer than a trade paperback or two, sadly, and it's one of the things that frustrates me about their books. "Invincible," thankfully, doesn't stop and start like that.
Kirkman's newest title, meanwhile, debuts this week with "The Infinite," co-created and drawn by Image Founding Father, Rob Liefeld. And if you like Rob Liefeld comics, you're going to like this Rob Liefeld's comic. Given his artistic choices, having a solid, if unsurprising, script from Kirkman to back it up just makes it look better.
This may not be a revelation to anyone, but it's always interested me how reading a comic makes the art look better than just flipping through the pages. Maybe it's because of context or because your eye moves more slowly across the page when reading balloons, but the art in front of a good script will always be elevated. Many of the shortcomings in the least of Liefeld's efforts have been due to a less-than-solid script. Kirkman plugs that hole here and helps prop up the art, which looks a little livelier and a little more interesting for it.
Liefeld haters -- a cult community on the internet -- will still want to pick things apart in this issue and, to be fair, Liefeld has given them some ammunition. But I can't help but think this is some of the best looking art from Liefeld that I've seen in a long time. I have to think that's because these are characters he's drawing from designs he's made that things seem more natural. Liefeld is playing to his strengths, as it were.
The one thing that really bothered me in the issue is the little finishing touches that are missing. Panel borders change thickness randomly, or lines don't reach out all the way to the border, or sometimes run past, like someone didn't have time to hit the gutter with a little digital White Out to clean things up. When blocks of color have to define the shapes of arms or legs near the borders of a panel, it sticks out and looks funny.
Kirkman's script starts from a strong high concept -- man travels back in time to save the world by helping a younger version of himself. -- and quickly jumps into gear. Liefeldian guns, violence, brain explosions, sex, and high-tech stuff give everything a visual flair, right down to the Tron-like lighting on the suits. Kirkman moves the story deftly from point to point. Right now, the book feels like it's putting pieces into play and moving them around according to a plot that's waiting for them. Like with "Invincible," Kirkman isn't stalling. He's still throwing big action sequences into the mix while positioning his pawns. It's just that, in the end, the sum of the parts will no doubt be greater.
I hope "The Infinite" grows into something more endearing, where the lead characters learn from each other and change in opposite directions. For now, it's fast paced and it's cool and I'm willing to wait for the characterization to kick in more overtly next month.
The one down spot is that Rus Wooton goes for a more technical lettering style on the book. Gone is the bounciness and border-breaking of "The Walking Dead," or the tight character of "Invincible." This is too mechanical for me. It's less John Workman and more Kurth Hathaway. I get letting each book have its own flavor, but I'd have liked a more organic font here.
One last oddity: What's Youngblood's Brahma doing in the story? He lost some muscle mass, though. And how did my mind dig his name up without having to Google it? I'm a child of the '90s, aren't I?
HORROR AND ANGELS AND DRAGONS AND SAN DIEGO
I normally don't go for these battles between heaven and hell, and that's a big part of the reason why "Avengelyne" #1 bored me so. I found myself skipping past the word balloons and their tedious references to high powers and angels and demons and people gone astray and -- who is this stripper, really?
I will say this, though -- I love the art from Owen Gieni. It's colorful, cartoony, and expressive, mixing manga-esque coloring in the foreground with gritty realism in the backgrounds. He can leave his art open and still sell a darker mood. This guy could draw another book and be a star. Right now, he's weighed down by this one. We all have to start somewhere, though, right?
Also, Dexter Week's word balloons are drawn in with too thick a stroke for my tastes. And, just wait, I'm not done talking about lettering yet this week. The best is yet to come!
"Severed" is Scott Snyder's first creator-owned project, debuting this week. It's a horror book, co-written with a Hollywood friend, Scott Tuft, and feeling very much like a movie script. But the art is so beautiful that I'll forgive all of that.
The story is set in 1916, when we meet a young man running away from home with nothing but a violin and a dream. We know it goes slightly awry, because the opening scene shows the boy 50 years later with only one arm. It's a great storytelling trick that adds tension to every scene set in the past. Every time something bad might be about to happen, you wonder if this is "the one" where the arm is lost. Problem is, just as that story gets going, we intercut with another kid who's life appears to be paralleling our protagonist's, just further down a dark path.
The end result is curious. I want to like this book. The lead character, Jack Garron, is likeable both as a kid and a senior citizen. You know he's about to make a few bad decisions, but you chalk it up to youthful exhuberance and sit back to enjoy the drama. But then there are the elements of horror that sneak in because, well, this is a horror book. My biggest problem is that I want it to be a period drama, not a scary tale of a guy with funny teeth.
But I have to review the book I'm given to read, not the one I wish it would be. To that end, it's a positive review. Things are still building with this issue, but Snyder and Tuft do a few smart things with the script to keep your attention. As I said before, the start of a framing sequence gives every scene added weight. Intercutting between the two boys having (no doubt) what will be similar issues keeps the story moving, such that one plot's slow scene is sped up by the other's tense action, and vice versa. We don't know what's going on just yet, but that's part of the fun, isn't it? Being in the dark -- figuratively and literally, in one case -- keeps the reader on edge. Welcome to well-crafted horror comics.
The true start of the comic, though, is artist Attila Futaki. This is art on the level of Max Fiumara, who fittingly came to comics' attention via Joe Kelly's "Four Eyes," another creator-owned Image comic set in the early part of the twentieth century. It feels natural, like something ripped out of an appropriate era's magazines. His coloring is subdued, bathed in browns and near-sepia tones. It's that desaturated and dirty look that makes you think about a time pre-Depression and Dust Bowl. Yellows and browns and sunset oranges have never fit a comic title so well.
This book is rated "M" for mature in Image's new ratings system, though there's nothing too graphic in this first issue. It's $2.99, with a second issue planned for September. If you've been enjoying Snyder's lengthy list of DC titles in recent months, you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot.
"Savage Dragon" is up to its 172nd issue already, which means we're only a few short months away from what will no doubt be an epic 175th issue. Wait, that's old news, isn't it? Issue #175 will be 48 pages for $4.99, and is due out -- in August. OK, so there's been some delay on the book recently. Let's move on.
Issue #172 is a fine addition to the on-going storylines in the series. I'm not sure there's much more to say than that. This issue introduces the terribly not subtle "Warren Terror," who drapes himself in stars and stripes and is the ultimate ultra-right wing villain for every left wing creator. Aside from a catchy punny name, he's just another Aryan white supremacist short blond hair dude with super powers. He's Howard Niseman with a more powerful right cross. (There's a name from the past, fellow Fin-Addicts.)
And that's OK. It gives Larsen another chance to draw people beating each other up in dramatic ways. There's plenty of that in this issue, too, even though the counterpoint to that drama is Malcolm Dragon's speech at his school, fueling new jealousies from Angel, whose counterpoint in Dimenson-X is coming closer to showing back up on "our" earth.
Tom Orzechowski letters the heck out of the whole thing. That's important to note because it makes the whole darn thing look so cool.
There's not much to single out about this issue. It's another solid issue of "Dragon," and you'll like it if you like this sort of thing. I do, and I did. It has a solid enough core to it that you could recommend it to someone new, but I'm not sure there haven't been better single issue examples of that recently.
Debuting at Comic-Con International: San Diego, "Marksman" #1 has a cool post-apocalyptic setting, complete with dangerous roving gangs and a high tech community set in San Diego. (And, yes, comic book fans, guess what building New San Diego is centered on?) The art is solid. The coloring isn't my style (too second-generation Liquid!), but does the job. And there's a large cast that's introduced fairly easily.
Unfortunately, they lost me with the over-the-top cliche of the evil Texas oil-and-religion cult coming to defeat the science-based people, even though the head of the religious gang knows oil isn't the answer and solar power is and -- wow, it's so wonderfully two-dimensional and MSNBC-friendly that I checked out of the story. I bet that new "Thundercats" cartoon has more subtlety than this.
The lettering doesn't do any favors, either. There are a number of errors in the book, not the least of which is using the word "it's" three times in three panels, and only getting it right once. Those errors sandwich a misspelling of "business," just as a bonus. I'll give the unnamed letterer enough credit to assume the use of larger characters at the beginning of sentences is a deliberate choice. And who in the production department forgot to stat in the first panel of that fight scene in to the TV screen in the next panel? Without that one copy, the scene makes no sense.
"The Vault" #1 lost me for similar reasons just a few pages in. Besides a core dump's worth of exposition and introduction, the ordering of caption boxes not aligning to the visuals of the people being introduced threw me out of the story completely. I just didn't care anymore. Sorry.
In any case, "Marksman" is only a dollar for 32 pages of story, so you get a good value and a story you might enjoy. While Hollywood-friendly, it doesn't seem like a total pitch -- the lead character isn't made to look like Ryan Reynolds or anything. "The Vault" uses more obvious photo reference, but has a softer coloring style.
David Hahn's "All-Nighter" #2 (of 5) switches gears up quite a bit. Instead of leaning on the breaking-and-entering portion of Kat's life, this one gets down to something a little more down-to-earth: the boy who got away. Or, the boy who went away. David Hahn is setting up a love triangle that's intriguing without being melodramatic. And then, on the final page, he threatens to turn the book around once again with a twist that'll either be the death of the series or the beginning of the true point of the series.
It's interesting to see how easily the series is breaking into issue-sized chunks, given that it was originally formatted as an original graphic novel. I wonder if that longer original format means Hahn is sort of "delaying" the point of the book for a couple of months until people assume the book is one thing, only to pull out the rug and throw many for a non-recoverable loop. I'm in for the duration, but I'm not fickle like that.
You can now find me on Google Plus. Early version of some of the above reviews appeared there first. I think I might try more such "thinking out loud" in the future.
I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I've wound up my coverage of a Huey Lewis concert and revisited an Incredible Hulk picture. Or, go to VariousandSundry.com to read other oddball thoughts that aren't comics-related.