Scenes from a Box of Comics: Part the First

It's been quite a while, but it's time once again for the world's most behind-the-times comics reviews! We'll start with a couple of reviews that had been sitting in the "Drafts" folder for a few months, and then launch into some reviews that are considerably more up-to-date-- but not too up-to-date. I have a reputation to uphold.

Beneath the fold: Ambush Bug, Atomic Robo, Batman and Robin, Doom Patrol, and MarkAndrew's personal favorite, Joe the Barbarian.

Ambush Bug: Year None #7 (of 6) by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming, Art Baltazar, Franco!, Al Milgrom, and the looming spectre of Dan DiDio (DC Comics)

Who knew "Year None" would be such a prescient title? A year after I'd pre-ordered this issue, finally, it arrived, seemingly rushed, appearing to have been cobbled together at the last minute, rescued from a few pages of #6's original art and quite a bit of help from the two fellows who bring us Tiny Titans. At last, however, this series concludes. Any effort to reconcile it with the previous issues in the series seems pointless-- Ambush Bug is barely coherent on a good day, anyway, and there wasn't much of a plot to begin with, let alone conclude with.

What we get instead, here in this issue that Tim Callahan totally hated, is Keith Giffen at possibly his most mean-spirited. He's been leaning that way in recent years, but with a seemingly defeatist attitude toward the last issue of this series, it feels like he's taking his ball and going home, but not before kicking everybody else in the shin. We might never know what really happened to the apparently completed #6, though we get pieces of it here-- the "First Crisis" bit is kinda clever-- spliced together with a frame story of a detective searching for the missing #6 (Black Lantern Jonni DC is also an inspired bit).  Dan DiDio stands revealed as the culprit behind the DC Universe's continuity and flagrant mishandling thereof, as well as the overall spirit of death and maiming-- and then the Bug quits the DCU, turning his back to the reader, to his own creators, to the very comic he stars in. The jokes seem tired-- and so does the Bug,  and Giffen, too, and Fleming, and everybody associated with this comic. I think that's the point.

Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time #5 by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, Ronda Pattison, and Jeff Powell (Red 5)

Honestly, I don't have much to say about Atomic Robo this time around, because I've run out of synonyms for describing how awesome it is. I give it a prominent position in these review posts because I really, really, really want all six of you folks reading this to buy this comic, and damn the torpedoes. While Clev and Weg might be Buffy-hating madmen, they do produce damn fine comics periodicals-- periodicals so fine, I find it impossible to wait around for the trade collection.

This issue concludes the latest mini-series, and while the ending comes a bit abruptly (could anything live up to the badass that was Carl Sagan from the previous issue?), we do get the Council of Cross-Time Robos fighting an elder beast from beyond spacetime to save the future of reality, mixed with the adventures of a couple hapless Tesladyne scientists (modeled after Clev and Weg themselves, I think?) who have invented, as Robo states in the panel above, an evil computer. Humorous dialogue, fun sight gags, and rip-roarin' adventure-- Atomic Robo's tons of fun (yes, fun, deal with it) and this mini in particular is probably-- scratch that, definitely-- my favorite comic of 2009.

Buy this comic, or I'll tell the authorities what you do in your basement at night.

Batman and Robin #7 by Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Alex Sinclair, and Pat Brosseau (DC Comics)

After three issues of subpar storytelling and muddled, gloomy artwork, Batman and Robin is back on top form, and none too soon. That cackling madman, Grant Morrison, and his partner in crime, Cameron Stewart, completely reinvigorate this series, bringing a gleeful, intelligent energy to the proceedings. Only they could make the exact opposite of almost every other DC Comic right now and turn it into a top seller.

I'm afraid I can't add to the discussion of this issue-- it's already been picked apart, examined under microscopes, and praised to the high heavens by all the top-level Thetans in the comics blogosphere-- but I'll say some stuff anyway. What we've got here is the superhero comic at its finest, streamlined but savory. Morrison and Stewart take Batman to England, and without a single shot of Big Ben, create the most English comic ever published by an American company. What I love about Morrison's best superhero stories, however, is his willingness to just toss off better ideas than most writers would milk for a lifetime. He creates an entire super-culture for Britain with a few word balloons and characters, but it brings a glorious lived-in feel to the comic-- Morrison just gets how the DCU works: King Coal and the English subway pirates (echoing a previous Morrison/Stewart collaboration, the Manhattan Guardian), pearly princes and kings, Metaleks, luminescent miners, secret prisons, Whirlybats, the triumphant return of the Knight and the Squire. And, hey, the Beefeater shows up! Well, maybe it's not supposed to be the Beefeater, but I choose to believe it is.

Cameron Stewart is at the height of his powers-- or so it seems, because he keeps climbing with each new project. I am so feverishly jealous of this dude, because most of what you see on these pages was put down in ink, not pencil. What a talented bastard fine and polite young man he is. Straight off from the magnificent parkour sequence in the book's opening, Stewart deftly handles everything Morrison throws at him with adrenaline and panache. Do superhero comics get better than this? I guess we'll find out with #8!

Doom Patrol #6 by Keith Giffen, Matt Clark, Livesay, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, and scads-- scads, I say!-- of others (DC Comics)

Why, yes, after giving the first issue of this series a scathing review, I did indeed give it another chance-- five more chances, actually. The quality has fluctuated quite a bit over the first six issues, but this particular episode might just be the best one yet, due to a minimization of the problems I've had with the series thus far. For instance, we all know Keith Giffen is one of comics' best plotters, but his dialogue leaves something to be desired-- at least, it has with this series. Lo, that problem completely disappears due to a lack of dialogue in this issue. Giffen instead gives us monologue, from that of Larry Trainor, the Negative Man, as the series takes a break from its ongoing plots to deliver a standalone character introspection piece. Giffen plays continuity damage control here, trying to make every incarnation of the Doom Patrol fit into one whole, albeit a fractured one, much like Negative Man himself, as the issue demonstrates.  Rather than just charge forward and ignore any continuity confusion, Giffen drags the series into DC's current era-- crawling through the wreckage, so to speak.

The current Negative Man isn't so much Larry Trainor as he is an amalgam of several people, all held together by the "Negative Spirit." What that means is that Giffen's sewn a few retcons into the Doom Patrol's historical tapestry, putting the Byrne run in, not as a reboot, but as a continuation, and lumping another incarnation of Negative Man into Grant Morrison's run. Yes, Rebis does appear, but Giffen doesn't seem to be a fan, and quickly glosses over that version with an "I think I'll pass" from Larry. His memories aren't all they could be, so anything that doesn't quite fit in a perfect timeline remains fuzzy in the mind's eye. It's probably the best any writer can do to make sense of the Doom Patrol's history-- they've got the most screwed-up fictional chronology this side of the Legion of Super-Heroes. What the issue lacks in plot or forward momentum it tries to make up for with character, and the job isn't half-bad. Hey, Flex Mentallo even appears in this issue! That's right, Flex completists, he shows up in one panel-- unnamed, and without the leopard-print undies showing, but we faithful know it's him. Suck it, Charles Atlas!

Matthew Clark's art is also the best it's been yet in this series. While he usually draws in the closest thing to a "house style" DC's got, he shows quite a bit of range in this issue, depicting each era of the Doom Patrol in a stylistic echo of its artist. The earliest flashbacks have a hint of Premiani, the Morrison-era bits have a touch of Richard Case, the Tan Eng Huat segment looks Huaty, and the Johnny B crew appears all Byrned up. The entire issue is clearly Matt Clark, but if you trace the depictions of Robotman, you can tell he's added influences from all the Doom Patrol artists of old. It's a nice touch, and much appreciated.

However, this series still hasn't quite captured me, and I haven't ordered past #7. It's no coincidence that the Metal Men back-up feature, easily the best part about each issue (and it once again provides wacky fun here), ends with #7 as well. I want to love this Doom Patrol series, but it's just not working for me-- be it the dialogue problems, the lack of narrative momentum (despite this probably being the best issue yet, it's completely unnecessary), the just-okay art, or the overall tone, which really emphasizes the "Doom" half of the title, and only adds to DC Comics' currently cynical atmosphere.

Joe the Barbarian #1 by Grant Morrisex, Sean Murphy, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Take the best writer, colorist, and letterer in comics, add a guy soon to be considered one of comics' best artists, let 'em make a comic, sell it for a dollar, and you have the best buy of the year. Really, only some stark raving madman would hate this comic!

I jest. Maybe this comic isn't to your taste. Maybe you're hung up on the comic's unrealistic portrayal of diabetes, or its slow, deliberate pacing. The primary focus of this first issue is the evocation of mood-- we meet the young Joe Manson and follow him through his class trip to a veteran's cemetery, where his father is buried, to his walk home and throughout his house, and then-- some stuff happens. Someone who read and enjoyed a supercompressed comic like Batman and Robin might throw their arms up in frustration when they meet a decompressed comic book from the same author. One could argue, of course, that this set-up and slow build is necessary, because the house itself-- soon to be transformed into an hallucinatory fantasy setting-- is an incredibly important character, and demands an introduction, as unto a map of Narnia, Middle Earth, Canada, or some equally fictional locale.

Even if the space madness has seized your mind, and you hate the story, there remains one thing everybody can agree on: Sean Murphy draws the shit out of this comic. The detail is extraordinary, with every nook and cranny of the house exquisitely presented: the architecture, the toys, even the Atari(!). Every single panel has been carefully considered in terms of composition and mise en scène-- dig those inky fingerprints used for environmental texture!-- and the whole thing comes together as a masterful depiction of design and verisimilitude. And we haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet. No other American comic book looks like this. Once again, Grant Morrison has found a collaborator who not only holds up his end, but elevates the production to a higher level of quality. Plus, check those final pages: the Gray Ghost appears! If you thought appearances by the Beefeater and Flex Mentallo were geekily awesome, you probably just peed a little.

Foolish Bill is waiting for the trade to read the rest of it. Don't be like him. Buy the hell out of this comic. Let's show those fiends at Diamond that we love good comics.

Coming Soon (Hopefully): Reviews of trade paperbacks, graphic novels, comics with spines, what-have-you.

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