Superheroes & Spacemen, Monsters & Y2K

The next month or so of "When Words Collide" will look something like this: another installment of "Before They Were Famous" with a spotlight on the pre-Brubaker Captain America, a retrospective on the early days of the now-rarely-discussed "Justice Machine" of Mike Gustovich, a look at that time artist Ramon Perez wrote and drew a book for a role-playing game publisher and a lengthy conversation with...someone guaranteed to be interesting.

I may do those columns in that order, or I may decide to abandon some of them completely (let me know if you demand that I keep any or all of them in the "to do" stack), but the emphasis of most of those weeks will be, basically: here is something old that I want to talk about.

What about the now? What about the comics of today? What's cool? What am I reading this month that's actually sort of new?

Glad you asked.

Let's do this, capsule-review style, for your edifi-tainment.

"America's Got Powers" #1 by Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch (Image Comics)Oh, how we all cringed when this series was announced! I know I shouldn't speak for anyone but myself, but I can't be the only one who heard about this comic, with that panderingly pathetic title, and wrote it down in my Moleskine comic-collector's notebook on the page labeled "Never Need to Buy and/or Read This."

Of course I bought it and read it.

It also could also, as no one will be surprised to hear, have been added to the page labeled "Mark Millar Comics Not Actually Written by Mark Millar."

The issue opens with a fake internet news article complete with four typically inane comments, because there's nothing like giving your readers something annoying to set the mood for your comic about celebrity superhero try-outs.

Yet...this first issue isn't what I expected. It's grotesque and hyperbolic, but instead of doing a tame riff on reality shows and media-drenched superheroics, Ross and Hitch explode the gladiatorial side of super-powered slugfests and present a world where the existence of superhumans has turned reality shows into something far beyond what we've ever seen on our Earth. They don't give us hackneyed melodrama of behind-the-scenes backstabbing in the context of a show where a Piers Morgan would say something snotty. Instead, they give us hackneyed melodrama inside the Power Melee Smackdown arena. And that's a lot more fun.

The title of the series alludes to a manipulative talent competition -- basically, the Gong Show with a bigger budget and Vegas sensibilities -- but it's actually about a superhero-as-sports-entertainment concept. Everything is amplified here, from Hitch's cluttered panels to Ross's verbose word balloons, to the screaming fans in the arena to the sleazy-clean broadcasters. But all the excess and bombast slides away for the climax of the story, as the ultimate underdog reveals himself and the real story becomes clear: this comic wants to mock its own setting but tell a tug-your-heart-strings saga in the middle of it. And as obvious and manipulative as it is -- just as its title would suggest -- it still works. It seems sincere, beneath its insincerity. Or maybe the other way around.

"The Zaucer of Zilk" from "2000 AD" prog 1775, by Brendan McCarthy and Al Ewing (Rebellion)This issue of "2000 AD" has a nicely-painted Nikolai Dante chapter, a Pat Mills "Flesh" installment, and Flint Henry doing his Ezquerra-meets-McMahon impression on "Judge Dredd," but the not-to-be-missed slice of this magazine is surely the newest sci-fi superheroish creation of Mr. Brendan McCarthy.

Prog 1775 only arrived in U.S. comic shops last week, but it's almost a month old already, so U.K. readers have seen more of the "Zaucer" than we have. As such, they can let us know if it's the best thing ever or just yet another example of a great artist making colorful shapes on the page.

Everything McCarthy does is worth reading, and because he hasn't done all that much in the past couple of decades, it's easy to read every piece of it. Al Ewing, the it-boy among not-ancient 2000 AD writers, is listed as co-writer here, but when McCarthy draws and colors a comic, it tends to come out as 98% McCarthy, and 2% the rest of the world that influenced it in some way. He's distinctive, to say the least.

In this opening chapter of "The Zaucer of Zilk," in its too-short six pages, we are merely introduced to the title character, as we follow him down his rabbit hole to the day-glo universe where he inherits his ancestral legacy. It's fitting that a radiant "Sweets" shop provides access to the portal to the colorful world of beyond, because this strip echoes Roald Dahl's "Willy Wonka" in its sense of the dreary giving way to the fabulous. And no one illustrates the fabulous as well as McCarthy.

Fact: the cover of prog 1775 alone tells a better story than almost anything else you'll read this month.

"Death Planet" by Alan Hebden and Lopez, plus "Angel," by Chris Stevens and Carlos Pino (Rebellion)These two strips come to us from years two and three of the "2000 AD" magazine, relics from the late 1970s, now reprinted in a special one-volume floppy under the "Death Planet" banner. It's only available as a bonus book, bagged with "Judge Dredd Megazine" #321.

It's not new. It's not particularly cool. But it might be worth checking out.

For one thing, it demonstrates the level of craft of some of these lesser-known artists from what we would call the Bronze Age. Lopez and Pino both use their black-and-white canvas to show all the action and emotion needed to tell their sci-fi stories. These read like workmanlike comics of the 1970s, but in the best way: these are not dashed off, sloppy products. Lopez and Pino each evoke very different worlds, and their sometimes stiff, sometimes inelegantly composed panels are just as often followed by a thrilling image or two. These were the days when comics pages were carved out to tell a story, not to look good for framing on someone's basement wall.

"Death Planet" gives us a serial about a space-caravan that crashes on a hostile planet, filled with alien dinosaur monsters. It's like a cross between the old "Battlestar Galactica" and DC Comics' "The War that Time Forgot." But it's better than either of those, because the action is as fierce as the character interplay and unlike Robert Kanigher's monster-meets-army-men comic books, there's actually a larger story at play here, with reversals and a villain revealed in the final act.

The sexual politics of the strip are silly, with the female space captain constantly pushed to prove her worth among the men, and the middle chapters feel overly improvised before the story pulls back together for its abrupt ending, but I was completely entertained by the whole thing from beginning to end. It's a tame 2000 AD gem, but it still sparkles a bit.

"Angel," the much shorter serial also included, is about a pilot who becomes an accidental cyborg (his navigation computer becomes burned into his skin!) and he saves us all from the threat of the dirty commies. Mostly by flying stuff around and nearly getting killed a dozen times. Also, still kind of sparkly after all these years.

"1999" by Noah Van Sciver (Retrofit Comics)Noah Van Sciver, best known for his "Blammo" comics (or perhaps better known for being the indie comics brother of Ethan Van Sciver), jumps back to 1999 for his single issue from the Retrofit Comics line.

Van Sciver works in a faux-memoir-style realism here, as he tells the love story between Mark and Nora, and their torrid affair at the sandwich shop.

This is certainly not a romance comic.

Yet, in its heartbreaking way, it's a powerful story about love, even if its version of love is deeply corrupted by the realities of the life the characters lead.

Set against the impending-and-never-realized Y2K crisis, Van Sciver's story about Mark and Nora avoids anything that even hints at any kind of idealized romanticism, while the characters try to connect in that dangerous way that allows for casual physicality but leads to something closer to addiction. Love, as a concept, may not even exist in the world Van Sciver illustrates here -- he attacks it, deflates it -- but that doesn't stop young Mark from falling into its trap and even as Nora pushes him away, there's a sense of an unspoken devastation between them.

Van Sciver falters a bit in the end, as if he didn't trust the realism of his own story and fell back into a dream-like escape pod, but even if the symbolism of the final scene goes too far, at least it's just a misplaced punctuation mark at the end of his impressive comic -- it deserves a simple, confident period, but he reaches for an interrobang.

"My Friend Dahmer" by Derf Backderf (Abrams)When I bumped into Tucker Stone, back in the fall of 2011 at the New York Comic Con, he was already praising this book. He'd seen a preview copy, and he was clearly impressed enough by it to talk about it as being one of the best books coming out this year.

I didn't see it at the show, but I looked it up online when I got home after that weekend. And I just couldn't see how what he told me about the book matched up with what it looked like. Backderf's cover art looked like someone trying to do Don Martin with an underground comix twist, and that didn't appeal to me at all. It seemed like a hammy pseudo-memoir that would surely lean toward exploitation. Plus, who cares to learn more about Jeffrey Dahmer? Banality of evil and all that.

Still, Tucker Stone's recommendations shouldn't be ignored -- he likes more comics than you would tend to believe based on his internet presence, but what he likes emphatically is always more than worth reading -- and so I pre-ordered a copy of the book.

I finally read it last week, and, yup, it is one of the best memoir comics ever crafted. Everything I presumed about the book was wrong, and though the cover of the book hints at Backderf's style, it doesn't do his art justice. He draws haunting images throughout the book, mostly because he presents true evil in its awkward, fumbling state. Jeffrey Dahmer, who Backderf grew up with, isn't presented sympathetically here, but he's presented as an adolescent who is so strange that he somehow escapes the concern of others.

Dahmer, in Backderf's telling, is the weird kid who everyone dismissed because he was "the weird kid."

But there's more to the story than that, as in the telling of Dahmer's story -- or in the telling of Backderf's own relationship with Dahmer -- the writer and artist tells the story of his own teenage years, and what it was like to live in that time, in that place. It's a shockingly specific memoir that has, like all the best stories, the feeling of the universal.

Yes, this is what adolescence can feel like, and that message isn't presented with heavy-handed captions and a highlight reel of images. It's shown to us, and as readers we inhabit the world for a time, which is something the great comics allow us to do, as terrifyingly sad and unsettling as it may be.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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