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Issue #131

There's no need to send me any sympathy messages, since I'm assuming everyone out there wishes me well on this. If you don't, I don't want to hear from you anyway.

I remember all kinds of grousing about John Ney Rieber's version of Captain America (and, considering the noise made about Robert Morales and Kyle Baker's THE TRUTH: RED, WHITE AND BLACK (Marvel; $17.99), I didn't have any reason to take it seriously). CAPTAIN AMERICA VOL. 2: THE EXTREMISTS ($13.99) collects the end of Reiber's run with the beginning of Chuck Austen's – in stories very nicely drawn by Trevor Hairsine and Jae Lee (in a far more controlled style than I'm used to from him) – and I'm not sure where one leaves off and the other begins. (Marvel doesn't go out of its way to make these things clear.) It's okay. The problem with Captain America (as with most superheroes, but exacerbated for obvious reasons) is that he's a symbol first and a character second. The book opens with him having made his secret identity public and moved into a bad NY neighborhood to be one with the People... but he did that at least once before, and even without a costume, Captain America is still the focus and Steve Rogers is still a ghost. Trapped in symbolism, it's a natural tendency for the character to become mired in critique – but any serious critique of the American character is also mired down by the need for Captain America to be the paragon of all that's right and good in our national psyche, so he's forced to be little more than a bland counterpoint to more extreme behavior, and plotlines – a Native American SHIELD agent becomes a weapon of vengeance against the White Man, someone's making braindead clones of Cap and Bucky, Cap may have been frozen intentionally by the government after WWII, Cap takes an absolutely pointless hallucinatory "spirit quest" that reveals absolutely nothing – are carelessly thrown in with no real purpose or resolution. So, on the downside, the stories are a muddled mess. On the upside, for Captain America stories, they're not that bad, because Captain America stories are always a muddled mess! It's unfortunately writers feel compelled to make symbolic statements when writing the character, but, let's face it, symbolism is all they really have to work with. (This collection also points up the problem with trying to do both trade and standard comics series, as well; while the collection can be seen to have a beginning and an end, it's hard to figure out why Cap starts out so mad, and it concludes while leaving too many plot threads hanging. Come on, companies: if you're going to plan trade paperback collections, build break points into the regular series for them.)

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Even when he was doing THE ELEMENTALS, I didn't care that much for Bill Willingham's superhero work. His heart just never seemed to be in it, and I wasn't particularly surprised that he spent much of the '90s in an extended search for a direction. TALL TALES (Vertigo; $19.95) is a great demonstration of the direction he found: whimsy. As in his current FABLES series, TALL TALES (based on material from SANDMAN) is really a set of deconstructions of popular myths and fictions, recast in modern sensibilities. It's not parody, exactly, or satire. It's whimsy. The stories aren't necessarily great – you have to be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate the Merv Pumpkinhead James Bond parody (with distractingly Kirbyesque art by Mark Buckingham and John Stokes), and "The Further Adventures Of Danny Nod" raises the concept of picaresque fiction in comics to a new level, though Peter Gross' art on the story is superb (but... if Danny is an assistant librarian in the Dreaming, and the Dreaming's library is all the books that weren't written, why does Danny wander through familiar stories) – but the style is sharp and measured and covers a multitude of sins. By the time we get to the "Thessaly" mini-series, beautifully drawn by my old pal, the horribly underrated Shawn McManus, it's been smoothly integrated with the strong story sense he generally shows today. Good book, and it's interesting to actually be able to watch a stylistic evolution in progress. Lots of people try parody and satire, but good whimsy's hard to pull off.

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Somehow I'd missed QUEEN AND COUNTRY OPERATION: MORNINGSTAR (Oni Press; $8.95). I don't really get QUEEN AND COUNTRY, which seems basically dedicated to making spywork seems as grinding and monotonous as it probably really is, and while it's nice to see someone portray it as not thrill-a-minute James Bond heroics, a little goes a long way. Can't fault Greg Rucka's dialogue, though; if nothing else, he's got a firm grasp on these characters. I suspect my antipathy toward the series may have something to do with the continually shifting but generally uninteresting art; where's Steve Lieber when Rucka really needs him?

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If anyone doubts that the much-touted Batman arc "Hush" was Jim Lee's show, read BATMAN: HUSH Vol. 1 (DC Comics; $19.95). Collecting the first five issues – and, man, is it annoying to have a hardcover cut out not even halfway through a story – it exposes basic weaknesses in the story that weren't so apparent in monthly publication (like, mainly, if you're going to have a guessing game about a mystery villain, you have to provide more than one suspect!), but Jim really makes it all look great; I can see why fans reacted to this like they originally reacting to the Neal Adams reimagining of the character in the '70s. You can see where his interests really lie, though: Catwoman and Poison Ivy are jawdropping. We didn't really need another Superman-Batman punchout, though...

Finding a new angle on war stories is tough. These days, they generally break down to "heroic soldiers carry out impossible mission," with them either returning worn but triumphant or not returning at all, or "corrupt soldiers carry out impossible mission against their better judgment," with pretty much the same results. Nice to see Brian Azzarello teasing both in SGT. ROCK: BETWEEN HELL & A HARD PLACE (Vertigo; $24.95), an original graphic novel that actually deserves the hardcover treatment. Admirably restrained, Azzarello posits varying shades of morality in combat without beating anyone over the head with them, as Easy Co., in the middle of a push against better-armed German troops, questions whether one of its members is a cold-blooded killer rather than just a soldier killing because he has to, not to mention how much of a difference that makes. Lucky for him, he's joined by comics' premier war artist for the past 50 years, Joe Kubert, who seems to enjoy being back with Easy Co., and whose work gets better and better. He's living proof that decline with age is a myth; there aren't a dozen young artists who can even approach touching him. This isn't a revamp – all the characters familiar to longtime Sgt. Rock fans are recognizable as what they always were – but it does give them greater nuance of character than ever before, and Azzarello's dialogue, always his strong suit, is snappy as always. Real good.

People have been telling me about IRON WOK JAN! (Comics One; $9.95@) for ages now, and, having finally read the first volume, I can see why. I also know people who are madly in love with the IRON CHEF TV show, which IRON WOK JAN! clearly takes off from. This is in the manga tradition of characters determined to be the best at whatever they do, in this case cooking. Curiously, the eponymous Jan, a teen cooking prodigy trained by a crazed renowned chef grandfather, is the Vegeta of the series (to use a DRAGONBALL Z metaphor), an almost vicious egoist obsessed with conquering all competitors. His main competitor is co-worker Kiriko, granddaughter of another chef who rivaled Jan's grandfather. It shouldn't be hard to see where that's ultimately going (I'd guess), but IRON WOK JAN! is a great example of where manga kicks American comics' butt. It's a simple, basically trivial, premise – almost embarrassing to summarize – but writer-artist Shinji Saijyo invests it with so much humor, drama and tension that's it's damn compelling. And not a villain or world-threatening menace in sight really good.

So what's the best superhero story ever told? WATCHMEN? DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? This week I'm swinging toward Ed Brubaker and Colin Wilson's POINT BLANK (Wildstorm; $14.95). Collecting the mini-series that launched SLEEPER (out in trade in June), it's a superhero story dressed up as a crime story, with Wildstorm core hero, Grifter, tracking down the attempted killer of his former teammate, master superspy John Lynch. It's waist deep in Wildstorm continuity without being oppressive about it, as Grifter drifts through an oddly superheroic world that's always at arms-length and keeps its dirty little secrets in the shadows, with a kicker of an ending – probably the most noir moment in superhero comics history – that's truly satisfying in its logic and inevitability, with superb control of dialogue and structure. A remarkable job from both Brubaker and Wilson; this thing should be taught in classes. Don't miss it.

Jason Henderson continues to busily build his niche in horror comics, with SWORD OF DRACULA #3 (Image; $2.95) and SOULCATCHER #1 (Moonstone Books; $3.50). Three issues in, SWORD OF DRACULA still doesn't quite do it for me. Henderson does fine on the dialogue, though the constant references to cultural trivia are getting wearing, but the art's murky and the printing looks like it was shot from third generation Xeroxes, still hurt by the lack of definition black & white brings. The plot remains a lot of sound and fury, with special forces types shooting off all kinds of weapons to stop the King Of Vampires, now basically repositioned as a supernatural Bin Laden. There are some good bits – one character's brain, complete with eyes, is worn like a gauntlet on another's hand, for instance – but they don't coalesce. (Later on, the eyelids lower over the eyes, but they have no eyelids – a great example of a good idea not thought through quite far enough.) It continues to be not bad, but, while I'm sure Henderson has something specific in mind, it still comes off as a high concept looking for an idea. SOULCATCHER is much better, helped considerably by color and much clearer art by Lou Manna and Terry Pallot. It's lighter, more relaxed than the rat-tat-tat SWORD OF DRACULA, about a man who can see ghosts and help people with ghost-related problems, who runs into a woman who unwittingly disrupts the piece of the dead. By the end of the first issue, it's still not clear what's going on, but Henderson keeps it interesting, and it picks up steam as it goes along.

There was going to be a lot more, but under the circumstances they'll have to wait. Sorry about that.

Speaking of MY FLESH IS COOL, turns out there's an interview with me on the subject in the new VAMPIRELLA MAGAZINE #4, along with a slew of other features, including new Vampirella stories by Jeff Parker and by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Gabriel Rearte, and reviews and coverage of horror in every medium conceivable.

After the last MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS flashback, quite a few people dropped me a line asking when the COLLECTED MOTO would come out. At least at the moment, it probably won't. It was originally planned from AiT/PlanetLar Books, but, as I mentioned sometime in the past, given that it's 225,000+ words and they've decided to get out of the prose book business, it's been returned to me. I've sent out a few feelers to other publishers without much luck, and I haven't had time to seriously shop it around. What I was wondering was: anyone interested in buying an e-book version of it? That'd be pretty easy and relatively inexpensive to put together. If that interests you, drop me a line and let me know.

Marvel (which, I guess, dropped their "special edition" reprint of SECRET WAR #1 in favor of a standard model about concurrently with my critique of the plan last week, but, since several people asked, no, I believe the two things were coincidental, but if Marvel is making policy decisions based on what's in this column, please, someone, let me know so I can ridiculously abuse my power) sent THE ESSENTIAL PUNISHER VOL. 1 ($14.99), which includes all his pre-regular series appearances, including the mini-series I did with Mike Zeck. The paper could be whiter, the mini-series' painted covers scan badly, and I'm not crazy about black and white, but Mike's line art really looks sharp. At a few hundred pages for $14.99, it's not a bad buy at all.

You can also hit up your local comics retailer for:

DAMNED: trade paperback from Cyberosia, art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier, coloring by Kurt Goldzung

Crime. A parolee jumps parole to fulfill a promise to a dead cellmate, and finds himself hunted by mobsters looking for missing money he knows nothing about, in a city where he has no friends.

MORTAL SOULS: trade paperback from Avatar Press, art by Philip Xavier

Crime/horror. A police detective tracks and kills a female serial killer, only to gain her gift of seeing her targets for what they really are: the dead, who run the world, and who hate the living.

BADLANDS: trade paperback from AiT/PlanetLar Books, art by Vince Giarrano

Crime story, set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.

BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY: text from AiT/PlanetLar

Screenplay version of BADLANDS, designed to ward off anyone who wants to make a movie of it.

PUNISHER:CIRCLE OF BLOOD: trade paperback from Marvel Comics, art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

Crime. The original mini-series that transformed The Punisher from a minor character into a movie-franchise spawning star. Imprisoned for his killings, the Punisher fights to survive and escape, but the war he declares on organized crime once he's out takes an unexpected turn.

HATED AND FEARED: Best Of X-MEN UNLIMITED: trade paperback from Marvel Comics collecting a number of short X-Men stories, including two by me: a "Blob" story with art by Sean Phillips, and a "Lockheed The Dragon" story drawn by Paul Smith.

GREEN LANTERN: TRAITOR: trade paperback from DC Comics, art by Mike Zeck, Gil Kane, Scott Kolins and Klaus Janson

Superhero action. Three generations of Green Lanterns – the alien Abin Sur in the old west, Hal Jordan joined by the Atom in the Silver Age, and the modern Green Lantern Kyle Raynor – battle an unstoppable cyborg powered by the stars and driven by a religious calling to snuff out all life in the universe.

FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP, monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp

Science fiction action. The most faithful adaptation of a screenplay in history. From the version of ROBOCOP 2 that was never filmed, Frank Miller's vision of the decaying future city of Detroit is realized for the first time, as Robocop crosses swords with a demented squadron of military police and a program-altering self-proclaimed moral watchdog, while the real police go on strike and OCP readies an even more powerful Robocop to replace him.

I encourage the patronage of local comics shops where applicable, but don't forget that if you can't find what you want there, you can always shop the fine online retailers Khepri and Mars Import.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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