Catching Up

I've fallen a bit behind on my comics reading lately, but made some time this week to start catching up on some recent Image releases. As luck would have it, there's enough to talk about to fill a column. On with the show:

"Mind The Gap" #1: This one isn't out until next week, but I couldn't wait. You may know Jim McCann best as the man who was a Hawkeye fan before being a Hawkeye fan was cool. He wrote some issues of that for Marvel a couple years back. Since then, he's also done the critically-praised "Return of the Dapper Men" and is now setting off in another new direction with this new series through Image Comics.

"Mind the Gap" is a mystery series that threatens to crash under its own weight. This first issue clocks in at 42 story pages (still only $2.99!) and throws everything including the kitchen sink at the readers. At the heart of it is an attack on 20-something Elle Peterssen. It lands her in a coma in the hospital where family, friends, and not-so-friendlies gather to check up on her. And so do the doctors. And the shrink. And the guy in the hoodie. And the mysterious guy behind it all. And is that a conspiracy I see popping up? Oh, and let's not forget the ghosts Elle meets while in "The Gap" looking down on her own body. Thankfully, she has a spirit guide and --

Yeah, there's an awful lot going on here. And there are two possible paths for it: It could turn out to be a fun mystery that is well planned out and expertly revealed in satisfying chunks. Or it could be one of those mysteries that drags out the mysteries for the sake of being mysterious and quickly kills its readership after a handful of issues.

Think "Lost." Or, well, think "Morning Glories." That's another series that started off strongly and had a great mystery behind it, but which has lost a lot of its buzz, part of which has to do with the way the mystery continues to expand without ever providing any answers. The comparison is also apt, since the cover artist for "Morning Glories," Rodin Esquejo, is also handling art duties on "Mind the Gap." His style is great for this book -- very grounded in reality, lots of photoref without looking completely stiff and posted. He handles the emotions well and can still fill in the backgrounds and establishing shots.

Sonia Oback gets credit for coloring, doing a nice job in keeping Esquejo's art looking stylized instead of referenced, while keeping the overall scheme down to earth. Even in its most fantastical moments, the book never switches to garish primary colors or pastels or something silly.

The final two pages at the end of the book are text pages from McCann, helping to point out some of the mysteries in the book. There's some concern with needing a text page at the end of the book to explicitly point out what's going on, but since it's a smaller point in the overall story that he talks about, I'll let it slide.

"Mind the Gap" #1 is 42 pages of comic storytelling for $2.99. There's no doubt a lot of value for the money. There's a lot being thrown at the reader and you'll have to pay close attention to keep up. Thankfully, the cast of characters are easily physically differentiated and the storytelling is strong enough to handle the things McCann throws in the script. The only problem the book has is one not of its own making; it's following in the footsteps of a genre that's too often abused and whose readers too often wind up disappointed. It'll have to fight against that, but if it can surprise us and answer a question here and there, it has the possibility of being a very strong series.

"Secret" #1: This is Jonathan Hickman's latest mini-series, done with Ryan Bodenheim on art. I went into it completely cold, and discovered a Washington D.C. area-based thriller with secrets, security run amok and just a hint of torture. While there are a couple of action-packed scenes, most of the book is dependent on talking heads. Hickman's skill with dialogue comes through, though, making what could be dry exposition and routine back-and-forths crackle with an appropriate nervous energy. There's still a lot to keep track of and a bunch of players on the board, but it's a strong first issue that will bring me back for more.

The biggest hazard to the book is just keeping everything straight from month to month. This first issue might be best digested as a teaser for the eventual trade paperback. That's where you'll get to read the whole thing in a compressed time period, and will better be able to keep everything in your head. By the time "Secret" #2 hits, I'm afraid I'll have forgotten characters and situations and I'll be struggling to keep up, so that's my current plan.

Bodenheim's art is a bit of a cross between Steve Dillon and Steve McNiven, to my eyes. It's Dillon's faces and gestures with McNiven's finishes and textures. The thing that stands out most with the issue, though, is the work of colorist Michael Garland. His work runs the gamut here, from selective coloring (red highlights in an otherwise black and white scene) to color-keyed scenes in purple, yellow, and green. It lends a unique feel to the art that another colorist might not have given.

And, of course, you get the signature Hickman four page spread for a chapter title, too. It functions like the opening credits. It might be a bit indulgent and "designy," but I like it. It helps to set the book apart on the crowded stands. And you're still getting 20 pages of story otherwise. (Sadly, in 2012, 20 pages is the new standard.)

The whole thing feels a bit like a Jean Van Hamme comic to me. You could almost see this book done up at a larger page size and published in albums in France. Bodenheim would need a lot more photoreferencing and ridiculously detailed backgrounds to get there, but it has the feel of something you'd get from the writer of "XIII" or "Largo Winch."

The cover is creepy, though.

"The Manhattan Projects" #2: Two issues in here and I'm not having a problem with keeping characters and situations straight. When the characters include Albert Einstein, Werner Van Braun and Richard Feynman, it's not hard to remember people. But Hickman -- yes, him again -- goes a step further with those characterizations and presents an alternate history take with some fun tweaks. The first issue's twist on Robert Oppenheimer's involvement made for one of the great single issues of the year so far, and Hickman isn't done pegging crazy things on historical figures with this issue. It's a winning formula, filled with imagination, history, and an Einstein that you'll want to see more from. I know I do.

The artist on this one is Nick Pitara, whose work feels "open" like Bodenheim's but has its own look. This one looks more like Frank Quitely's school of design, keeping things open for some subtle bits of shading from Rachelle Rosenberg, whose colors are a huge factor in this series. I love the way she can subtly add those shadows and bits of sculpting to the art without calling attention to herself. She's able to pop figures off the backgrounds and keep simple talking heads scenes from looking muddied or flat.

And yup, there's another four page design thing to kick the book off with more great quotes like the first issue had.

I don't know where this book is going, aside from its slightly more sinister take on the real world Manhattan Project, but I'm ready for the ride. The characters are the attraction here again, even if it's only for the cheap thrill of watching Einstein act a bit like a jerk, or Feynman being the lost and confused everyman who successfully pulls the reader along with him.

Again, it's 20 pages for $3.50 and a future trade paperback is all but guaranteed. It's available digitally day-and-date as well now, too.

"Savage Dragon" #179: It feels like we just had the End of the World Invasion in this series a year ago, didn't we? And didn't "Invincible" do it just before that? When you want to keep raising the stakes, the danger comes from going so far that the only way to get "bigger" is to keep doing the same thing at the outermost fringes. It's not that I don't want big action with consequences from Erik Larsen, but I am a bit weary of all the End of the World stories. Maybe I should bury myself in some older "Dragon As Cop" issues until this blows ever?

This month, a nearly unstoppable force of aliens has landed on Earth and is ripping it apart. Heroes and villains alike must unite to defeat the new menace and even that might not be enough. These aliens are a force of nature and lots of no-name and forgotten characters will be killed to show just how scary the situation is.

And then the whole issue ends on a bit that's not unique to the series, but -- well, I found it ironic that it's a story bit I read for the first time 20 years ago in a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" novel written by Peter David.

I read a comic story and instantly went meta on two levels with it. Oh, boy...

On the bright side, Ricochet got a panel! And she shared a page with a classic panel that has Kill-Cat inappropriately hitting on the new Dart. That was fun. And if it's an End of the World scenario that's necessary to bring all these characters back to the pages of the series, then I guess I can deal with it. But there's my problem: I love these characters, but only get to see them when they're part of a montage of rampant destruction on an epic level. I remember when it was a big deal that a single building fell down, let alone an entire city going down in a ball of alien flames...

I do join with Spawn, though, whose single dialogue balloon asked the question, "Can this be the end at last?"

"Near Death" #7: I have to get used to the style of the series. It's a series of short stories. These self-contained bursts follow a different storytelling pattern from their longer-arc focused brethren. Shortcuts will be taken and additional twists won't be welcome, as there won't be time to follow up on them. Once I took that into account, I enjoyed the latest issue of Jay Faerber and Simone Guglielmini's series, now located in sunny Los Angeles. You won't get the additional twist that it feels like the story needs, and the main inflection point for the story happens off panel during a time shift and will rely on the reader assuming the best, but the end result is a solid story with a sense of hope and more insights into the lead character, who's dangerous and mysterious and newly reborn as a cranky savior for some.

"Glory" #25: I almost missed this one because the cover looks like such a "Prophet" issue cover. But the story inside makes great use of a dream sequence. It's one where it feels like things are actually happening and not just a simple on-off wasted issue for the sake of filling pages. Joe Keatinge gives us a glimpse into the far future, and it's not pleasant. It helps add to that sense of urgency and desperation the title carries. And it'll directly impact the direction Riley goes in for future issues.

I hope.

I could be completely misreading this issue and it will turn out to be a giant waste of time, but my gut tells me otherwise. We'll see in six months or a year or so.

"America's Got Powers" #1: It still might be that I like Todd Nauck's "WildGuard" better. While the two series share some bullet points in common (with a dash of J. Michael Straczynski's "Rising Stars" sprinkled over the top), "AGP" is obviously going after a more "serious" feel where "WildGuard" had more of a colorful classic superheroic presentation.

This one is filled with Bryan Hitch's trademark images, volleying back and forth between widescreen destruction and detritus, and extreme close-ups on screaming faces. As with his "Fantastic Four" work, Hitch sticks with unlined borders too, and brings along Andrew Currie, Paul Mounts and Chris Eliopoulos to fill out the look of the book. That works.

As a first issue, "AGP" sets up the premise well, giving us the turning point for the main character and includes a moment near the end of peril that's worth cheering for when things turn out OK. Jonathan Ross throws a lot at the reader here, but it never feels overwhelming. I think his biggest achievement in this script is in not throwing in all the detail. He could easily have bogged the book down by proving to us how much he's through about this world right from the start. Giving us only the details and characters we need to know means that we'll remember them better and understand the story more clearly. He can easily expand the scope of the book from here, but I hope he doesn't do it too fast.

There are two dimensional characters playing the parts of villains (military versus private industry versus network television) and a plot that's a bit predictable. There are also some cute moments, such as the characters changing into the mascot costumes and the abuse they know they're about to take.

So while it's not the most original or surprising book at Image today, it is a nice piece of popcorn comics. Sit back and enjoy the ride. It's pleasant to look at and easy to digest.

"Invincible" #90: I'll repeat something I said on Twitter after reading this issue: It's about time Ryan Ottley got his due. In an industry that's been so laid to waste by constant creative team reshufflings giving readers nothing to ever feel invested in, Ottley has drawn a ridiculous number of issues of this series with but a few issues off and maybe a publishing delay or two. It doesn't matter; he's the perfect artist for this type of book and everything Robert Kirkman gives him to draw he makes look like it was in his wheelhouse all the time. (Yes, this includes, blood, guts and broken teeth.) He might not be the creative layout man that P. Craig Russell or J.H. Williams are. He might not have the level of chiaroscuro that Lee Bermejo has. He might not nail realism like Alex Ross. But is there a better artist for a better series in all of comics? His style is perfect for this colorful and violent superhero spectacular. And the fact that he's stuck around for as long as he has is a tribute to his art as well as his character. No doubt Marvel and DC have come knocking at his door at some point.

And while "The Walking Dead" gets all the press, "Invincible" is in the middle of a great storyline too. Invincible is down for the count, aliens are guarding his boy, a talking dinosaur who was his sworn enemy just a few issues ago is his new mentor and guardian, his girlfriend is grieving and trying to keep their business going and things are exploding on the moon. It's a large story that keeps things "small." At the heart of it, the characters are the ones we feel for. Yes, you get those occasional splashes of blood and guts to shock the system, but they're always accompanied by how you react to the way those moments will affect the characters.

That's good comics.

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