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What I bought, read, or otherwise consumed – March 2016

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What I bought, read, or otherwise consumed – March 2016

“That which is written without effort is generally read without pleasure.” (Samuel Johnson)

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson. Doubleday, 445 pgs, 2015.

I flipped through Dodson’s first book at the bookstore in December and thought it looked neat – it was clearly something odd, as the subtitle is “An Illuminated Novel” and he uses different fonts in different places and drawings scattered throughout to help make his points. I like books that are in some way metatextual (I don’t only like books like that, but I dig them as a concept), and this seemed a bit like that, plus it’s a novel in which characters zip around Texas in 1843 (historical fiction rules!) and in 2143 (science fiction rules!). With all that in mind, I bought this.

It’s just okay, however. It’s fascinating to a degree, as Dodson tells the story of Zadock Thomas, who’s wandering around the Republic of Texas in 1843 on a futile mission given to him by the father of the woman he wants to marry, and the story of Zeke Thomas, his descendent, who lives in a city-state in Texas after a vague collapse of civilization, where the people live in seven separate city-states based on their age and stage in life. Zadock is trying to find a general to deliver a letter to him, while Zeke is trying to decide whether to join the Senate after his grandfather has died, leaving him the Senate seat (which are hereditary in this new world). Zeke inherits a familiar letter that has never been opened, which means it hasn’t been copied into the records of the city-states (a big no-no), but it’s stolen early on in the book and a good deal of the story is about Zeke, his “pair” Eliza, Eliza’s estranged father, Zeke’s somewhat evil cousin, and the soldier in charge of the city-state trying to find the letter. The political environment becomes more and more oppressive, and Zeke’s friend Raisin tries to convince him to leave the city and enter the wasteland, where Raisin is convinced that a new society is forming, contrary to the official reports that it’s all, well, a wasteland. Meanwhile, back in 1843, we check in on Elswyth, Zadock’s intended, back in Chicago, where she is dealing with her own problems as Zadock wanders around Texas drawing animals and trying to find the general to whom he’s supposed to deliver the letter. Yes, the plot is packed with stuff. Dodson actually does a pretty good job keeping all the balls in the air for as long as he does.

Part of the problem, however, is the dispassionate way he tells the story. No character is really that fleshed out, so their trials and tribulations aren’t as gut-wrenching as Dodson wants them to be. Zeke and Eliza are supposed to be in love, but they spend a great deal of the book apart, so their reunion isn’t as triumphant as it could be. Eliza’s estrangement from her father is a crucial part of the book, and her father, as a “Queer,” could be an excellent character by which Dodson could examine the oppression of society (gay people are marginalized because the main component of humankind these days is replenishing the population, which means they’re irrelevant at best), but instead we just get a few cartoon villains who act like douches when they show up, but who aren’t in the book that much. There is some violence in the “future” section of the book, but it’s simply reported on or elided, which makes it less real. In 1843, Zadock’s odyssey and Elswyth’s trials take the form of letters Zadock sends to Chicago and a “novel” about Elswyth and her sister, which is written like a Victorian book of manners. This makes the book interesting, but once again removes us from the narrative by a degree, and unlike other metatextual novels I’ve read, the basic narrative isn’t quite interesting enough to make it work. Zadock’s descent into Texas and what he finds there is the crux of the “past” section of the book, but once again, it feels too dispassionately described. Even when his life is in danger, Dodson keeps us at arm’s length. Zadock’s descriptions of the bats and other animals he finds are fascinating, but it’s not enough.

Dodson begins to twist “reality” and “fiction” early on in the book, and as Zadock and Zeke careen toward their destinies, he draws more and more parallels between them. The letter is a bit of a MacGuffin, but we do get to read it (it’s actually in an envelope at the back of the book that the reader has to open), and it’s kind of clever what Dodson does with it. However, so much of the book feels like an exercise in how to write a clever book. We get letters, a “novel,” drawings of the animals, drawings of the city-state and some of the things unique to it, maps, transcripts of conversations that the authorities of the city-state have recorded, and a strange paragraph-less narrative in 2143 – Dodson uses blue-green “carets” to separate sentences in that section (see below). It’s not hard to read, but it does highlight the “cleverness” of it all. It’s frustrating, because cleverness can be breathtaking, but for me, it’s only when it’s married to a compelling story with good characters. Some of my favorite books are “metatextual” – If on a winter’s night a traveler, The Dictionary of the Khazars, Foucault’s Pendulum, House of Leaves, The French Lieutenant’s Woman – but those authors created astonishing characters and great stories that made the cleverness stand out a bit more. Dodson comes close, but he doesn’t quite make it. It’s not a difficult book to read, and it’s somewhat enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite pay off the way Dodson wants it to. It’s too bad.

First few paragraphs (with the example of how the “future” section is laid out):

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Black Canary volume 1: Kicking and Screaming by Brenden Fletcher (writer), Annie Wu (artist), Pia Guerra (artist), Sandy Jarrell (artist), Lee Loughridge (colorist), Steve Wands (letterer), and Robin Wildman (collections editor). $14.99, 140 pgs, FC, DC. Black Canary created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino. Kurt Lance created by Scott Lobdell and Ig Guara. Amanda Waller created by John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne.

Black Canary has been getting a lot of positive press, it seems, and although I wasn’t too impressed with the first issue, I figured I’d pick up the trade to see what’s what. I like Annie Wu’s art, and I tend to like Brenden Fletcher’s writing, so I figured my ambivalence toward the first issue was just because it was the first issue, which are hard to pull off sometimes. What the heck, right – this was 7 issues (at three dollars a pop) plus the teaser part of the Convergence stuff, all for 15 dollars. DC knows how to price their trades!

Unfortunately, I still don’t see what all the fuss is about. This is a perfectly decent superhero comic, but it doesn’t really rise above the rest of them. There’s an alien quasi-invasion, seemingly evil machinations by a seemingly faceless corporation which we soon learn is … not what it seems!!!!, and despite a pretty good set-up for the climax, it simply devolves into who can commit the most violence. Fletcher gives us some unusual characters, although none of Dinah’s band members are as interesting as they should be – the best new character ends up being Dinah’s rival and the former lead singer of the band, because Fletcher actually makes her three-dimensional. The other band members – Byron and Paloma – are dull characters wrapped up in faux-coolness, the band manager – Heathcliff (ugh) – is pining for his Gotham Academy girlfriend, Pomeline, which makes me think she’s underage and he’s skeeving on her a bit (I know that’s not what’s really going on, but I couldn’t help it), and Ditto, the guitarist, is a plot device. Dinah’s ex-husband – Kurt Lance – shows up, but he’s a drip, too. Amanda Waller is also around, but it seems that DC can’t decide whether she’s a hero or a villain, and she comes off really poorly here, but if that’s the way she’s being portrayed in the DCnU, I guess that’s that. She’s not terribly interesting, no matter whether she’s supposed to be good or bad. It’s just a comic that puts its characters through their paces without really having much emotional impact. They do things because they’re reacting to what’s happening around them. Even Dinah’s financial predicament – she only joined the band for a brief time to make some money – isn’t that interesting, because Fletcher hardly brings it up. There’s a lot of angst about the band, but it’s … comic-booky angst, I guess. It’s very melodramatic and empty, which is too bad. Fletcher, inexplicably, writes a better Dinah in Batgirl than he does here (although that might be because Cameron Stewart is a co-writer?), and that’s too bad.

Wu is a perfectly fine artist, and she makes the book look pretty good – along with Guerra, who draws a couple of issues in the middle of the book (in this trade, Jarrell contributes four pages, although I guess he drew all of issue #8). Wu still isn’t as good at superhero action as she needs to be, working on a superhero book, so her character work is superior to her action scenes, but her fight scenes aren’t that bad. She helps sell Fletcher’s attempts at character-building more than the dialogue does, which is nice. She has a sketchy style that fits the punk aesthetic of the band, so her stage scenes work pretty well. She hasn’t quite solved the problem of representing sound on a comics page, so the concert scenes aren’t as visceral as they are on, say, Jem and the Holograms, but Wu does some clever stuff with the sound-based fighting, which is nice. The art is slightly better than the writing, but it’s still just decent – with a few exceptions, Wu and Guerra don’t take many chances, so while their storytelling skills are perfectly fine, there’s nothing in the collection that takes your breath away. It’s just good solid art.

Black Canary isn’t surviving the purge, as far as I know – issue #12 appears to be the final one, but who knows what DC will do with it in the Brave New (New) World of June. We shall see. I won’t be back for the next trade, however – it’s not a bad comic, but it just doesn’t do it for me. So sad.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Bombshells volume 1: Enlisted by Marguerite Bennett (writer), Marguerite Sauvage (artist/colorist), Laura Braga (artist), Stephen Mooney (artist), Ted Naifeh (artist), Garry Brown (artist), Bilquis Evely (artist), Mirka Andolfo (artist), Ming Doyle (artist), Sandy Jarrell (artist), M.L. Sanapo (artist), Marc Deering (artist), Wendy Broome (colorist), Doug Garback (colorist), Kelly Fitzpatrick (colorist), Wes Abbott (letterer), and Liz Erickson (collection editor). $16.99, 180 pgs, FC, DC. Kate Kane created by Geoff Johns, the God of All Comics, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Ken Lashley. Maggie Swayer created by John Byrne. Amanda Waller created by John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne. Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. Supergirl created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino. Stargirl created by Geoff Johns. Mera created by Jack Miller and Nick Cardy. Anton Arcane and Swamp Thing created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. The Joker’s Daughter created by Bob Rozakis. Zatanna created by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson. John Constantine created by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben. Harper Row created by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. Kimiyo Hoshi created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Big Barda created by the King. Catwoman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Harley Quinn created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Shondra Kinsolving created by Doug Moench and Jim Aparo. Lex Luthor created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Poison Ivy created by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff. Helena Bertinelli created by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton.

Bombshells took an odd route to publication, as first came the statues, then the variant covers, then someone decided that chicks fighting evil might sell, so Bennett cooked up a fairly ridiculous but wildly entertaining story. I mean, it’s 1940, so the United States shouldn’t be involved in World War II yet, but somehow they are (so this is an Elseworlds, sort of, which makes it go down more easily), so women are literally running everything. Bennett wisely ignores why this would be and just throws us into the deep end, which is nice, because despite each issue clocking in at 30 pages, this book zips from plot point to plot point, hardly slowing down to allow us to consider some of the odder things about this world, which is as it should be. Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer living fairly openly as lovers, Amanda Waller’s weird recruiting tactics, Harley Quinn’s utterly-inappropriate-for-the-time-period clothing, the random appearance of Swamp Thing – don’t think about it, just go along for the ride! Despite packing the book with action, Bennett does take her time turning this large group of disparate heroes and villains into some kind of team – they’re not even really together at the end of this volume – but each character’s adventures are so much fun it doesn’t really matter. Batwoman, kicking ass at home while playing baseball on the side, ends up in Berlin spying and hanging out with Lex Luthor and Countess Selina Digatti. She finds out what the Joker’s Daughter has been cooking up, and it’s not pleasant. Wonder Woman rescues Steve Trevor and can’t sit idly by while he’s executed for war crimes (over whose cheekbones would she then swoon?), so she enlists Mera to help them escape, and they too join the war effort. They eventually run afoul of even the Americans, as Wonder Woman refuses to let them execute Nazi prisoners even though they’re ordered to do so. Kara Starikov and Kortni Duginovna want to join the Night Witches, the famed Russian bomber pilot squadron, but it’s revealed that Kara has superpowers and Kortni somehow gets her hands on a cosmic rod (seriously, it’s never explained how she gets it). The Russkies want to use them for propaganda, but they won’t allow their superiors to kill a bunch of dissidents, which gets them in trouble (lot of disobeying bad orders in this comic). Zatanna is a prisoner of the Joker’s Daughter, but she and man-turned-into-a-rabbit John Constantine (the best sight gag in the book is Rabbit Constantine smoking) decide they’re going to get out. Harley Quinn goes nuts and flies from England to France, where she hooks up with Poison Ivy (not in that way, although Harley certainly digs Ivy) and they decide to spread some mayhem. Swamp Thing inexplicably shows up. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.

Bennett keeps all the plates spinning, and it’s a lot of fun to breeze through it. She gets into some of the darker things in the war, but doesn’t linger on them, which is probably a good idea for the early stages of the book. Later, I imagine, she’ll get into it more – Batwoman is Jewish, after all, and she mentions that at one point, so I can’t imagine Bennett won’t revisit that – but for now, it’s okay to skim over it. Similarly, the Russian characters get to face the awfulness of their government, as Bennett makes it clear that General “Arkayn” is trying to spread his influence, but again, Kate and Maggie’s living situation in the United States … in 1940 … doesn’t seem to raise eyebrows. And a black woman is in charge of military recruiting. Bennett goes after some easy targets, but while the book is an entertaining read, I wonder if later issues will dig a bit into the social issues that Bennett is ignoring in this volume. We’ll see, I guess (and I suppose some people already know!).

Sauvage gets the only billing on the front cover, which is odd as she draws exactly 40 of 180 pages (22%) of the book. She does draw the entire first issue, and her work is lovely, but all the artists are quite good. Sauvage gets the 1940s aesthetic the best, and the other artists don’t quite get it as well as she does, but their work is good. Garry Brown is a good choice for some of the Joker’s Daughter sections, as that stuff is the darkest in the book, while Mirka Andolfo’s cartoonish art works beautifully for the Harley Quinn sections. Of course, I love Bilquis Evely’s work, so it’s nice to see it here, and Ming Doyle’s rougher stuff is good for Kate’s spy activities. The artists don’t always exactly fit the subject matter, but for the most part, they work pretty well. DC should have listed them all on the cover, though!

This is priced to move, as usual with DC, and it’s a nifty book with a lot going on. I don’t know how long the book will last, but Bennett is doing a nice job with it. I look forward to the next volume!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Harley Quinn and Power Girl by Amanda Conner (writer), Jimmy Palmiotti (writer), Justin Gray (writer), Stéphane Roux (artist), Elliot Fernandez (artist), Mortitat (artist), Flaviano (artist), Paul Mounts (colorist), Alex Sinclair (colorist), John J. Hill (letterer), Marilyn Patrizio (letterer), and Robin Wildman (collections editor). $14.99, 133 pgs, FC, DC. Power Girl created by Gerry Conway, Ric Estrada, and Wallace Wood. Harley Quinn created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Vartox created by Cary Bates and Curt Swan and this handsome fellow.

I guess I just have to accept that I don’t really like Harley Quinn. I bought this trade based on the pretty decent first issue, and I Palmiotti and Gray tend to write entertaining comics, and this is … okay, I guess, but Harley just grates on me. I know that Palmiotti, Gray, and Conner are responsible for her recent characterization and presumably a lot of her success, but I’ve never really liked her, and she’s not growing on me. Much like Gambit, it’s reaching a point where I wouldn’t really care if Alan Moore or Grant Morrison wrote a Harley Quinn mini-series. She’s just not my kind of character.

Which of course colors the way I write about this series. It’s not bad – Harley and Power Girl need to fight against an oppressive tyrant who is trying to destroy all hedonism, so they imprison Vartox and wreck his pleasure planet, but because Power Girl has amnesia and Harley is, well, Harley, nothing really feels consequential here (it doesn’t help that we come into this after the time when Power Girl gets amnesia, but that’s a minor point). Power Girl doesn’t remember Vartox, so any chemistry they may have had (and not that it’s good chemistry, but in PG’s solo series, at least her barbs at Vartox had the reinforcement of her remembering who he was) is out the window, and Vartox’s attempts to woo her come off as far creepier than in that aforementioned solo series because Vartox is aware that she doesn’t remember him. Power Girl shutting him down takes on the form of simply smacking him around, which he certainly has coming, but it’s kind of dull. Meanwhile, Harley swoons a bit over his masculinity, but the writers never go too far even with that – Harley and Vartox would actually make a weird, icky couple, which would be a comedic vein to mine. Conner, Palmiotti, and Gray seem to want to write more of a comedy buddy story, as there are three bad guys in this book, none of them too effective – Oreth Odeox, the anti-hedonist, turns Vartox evil for a while, but after they get him back to the “good” side, they can fight Odeox, and then there’s the Harvester of Sorrows, who sounds and looks far more impressive than he actually is. So there’s not much in the way of tension, and the book isn’t as funny as it should be. So it really loses steam early on (the first two issues are okay, but then Vartox becomes evil and things unravel after that) and never really regains it. I get that Harley’s stories aren’t supposed to be the most logical, but the way she defeats Dark Vartox and the way she even gets the “weapon” to defeat Dark Vartox are just idiotic. The final two issues turn increasingly surreal – which isn’t, on the surface, a bad way to go, but they’re shallowly surreal, if that makes sense, as Conner, Palmiotti, and Gray simply throw the weirdest stuff they can think of at the problem and hope the jokes will carry things through. They don’t, unfortunately.

The book looks okay, although I’m going to have to rant about the art – not the quality, but some aspects of its existence. This is a mini-series launched during DC’s “DCYou” thing, so they had a kind-of, sort-of time frame to get it done, but it’s not like they needed to release right at that time. I mean, DC is publishing just slightly fewer Harley Quinn books than Batman books, so at last count there were something like 538 of them on the market at any one time, so would delaying this a few months really have mattered? What I mean is, of course, that Roux can’t even finish the second issue before a guest artist steps in, and I guess Roux isn’t the fastest artist, but fucking really? There are two times when a guest artist would have made sense – at one point, Harley has a Hunter S. Thompson-esque experience, and later, everyone ends up in another dimension. So you can make the case that you would “need” a guest artist for those, although in the second instance, we get two (!) guest artists for the journey to the other dimension. If Roux is that slow, you can’t wait a few months to let him finish the entire thing? It’s not like Fernandez, Moritat, and Flaviano draw a large majority of the mini-series – they’re definitely just stepping in to help out, so I can’t imagine Roux couldn’t have finished this if DC had given him an extra month or two. I’m getting really sick of artists who can’t draw the first two issues of a mini-series without needing back up. I hate slagging on artists, because I know their job is a hell of a lot harder than that of writers, but DC knows Roux is slow. Roux, presumably, knows he’s slow. Why the fuck did this need to get released on the third week in June 2015, when DC already knew Roux wasn’t finished with issue #2? This couldn’t have come out in September? I like Roux’s art a lot, and the other artists on this book aren’t slouches, either – Moritat is a very good artist, as an example – but the book does look weird when the art switches. Why did this need to come out in June? DC had 538 other Harley books that Harley fans could hoover up in June!!!!!

Sigh. Anyway, the art shifts notwithstanding, the book looks fine. I’m just not a Harley fan, I guess. This is an instantly forgettable adventure, which is too bad. I personally like Conner and Palmiotti quite a bit (I’ve never met Gray), and Palmiotti and Gray often write very entertaining comics. This just wasn’t one of them. Too bad.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Fuse #13-18 (“Perihelion”) by Antony Johnston (writer), Justin Greenwood (artist), Shari Chankhamma (colorist), and Ryan Ferrier (letterer). $3.99 each, FC, Image.

The first two arcs of The Fuse were centered on their crimes, which Johnston used to illuminate aspects of society in Midway City, but in “Perihelion,” he flips the script a bit, as he focuses on the society of the Fuse – specifically how people celebrate perihelion, which, as Dietrich points out in issue #13, is kind of dumb because the “closeness” to the sun is negligible, but is it any dumber than some things we celebrate on Earth? – and throws some crimes in, all of which highlight the craziness of perihelion without the arc being “about” a specific crime. I mean, there’s a murder, a serial killer, and a couple of spree killers on the loose, so it’s not like the crimes aren’t serious, but Johnston is more interested in examining the society that breeds the odder criminals, like the one who steals diapers. It’s an interesting tightrope to walk – how does Johnston give us serious crimes without giving them short shrift – but he does a pretty good job with it. The “regular” murder isn’t too challenging – Johnston goes a far too familiar route with it, even though there’s a small twist – but it’s not bad, certainly. The serial killer story is less about figuring out who did it than figuring out how to catch the perpetrator, but again, Johnston does a good job with it. The arc has a good Robert Altman feel to it – Dietrich and Ristovych are the central figures around which everything swirls, but Johnston manages to keep a lot of balls in the air and allow our heroes to get to all of them in time. In doing so, he gives us a good cross-section look at the Fuse and its inhabitants – mostly the lost and forlorn – and why they have chosen to end up on the space station. There’s a strange sense of sadness and desperation to this arc, as the people party desperately and the crimes get weirder and weirder and the people get crazier. Johnston doesn’t make it too explicit (even though Ralph mentions it in the first issue), which is good, as we don’t need to be beaten over the head with the desperation of the populace, but he does hint around at it very well, as the people who actually snap aren’t the only ones who seem to be despairing. Even one of our protagonists, as we see at the end, is in a slightly less than ideal place, but that needs to wait until next arc.

Greenwood continues to do a solid job on the art. Greenwood seems to be getting bolder with his inking lines and his use of blacks, which is always nice to see, and while I don’t know if I’ll ever love his work, he certainly doesn’t do anything bad on the book. Johnston is going for a gritty, noir kind of vibe, and Greenwood gives him that, and that’s good enough for me. Chankhamma’s colors aren’t spectacular, either, but she does a good job contrasting the brighter, richer parts of the city with the grimier parts. Given the nature of the arc, she got to use more warm colors in this story than in the first two arcs, and the parts on the top level burn with a fierce beauty, both thanks to Greenwood’s interesting designs and Chankhamma’s bright colors. Much like Greenwood’s pencils, Chankhamma’s colors don’t really stand out too much, but they fit the tone of the book well.

I worry that the next arc, where we get some answers, might be the final one, which would be too bad. I certainly don’t have any reason to think this except that Johnston’s statements on the letters page feel kind of apocalyptic, as if it’s all going to be wrapped up in the next six issues. We shall see. The Fuse is an interesting comic, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue for a long time!

One totally Airwolf panel (from issue #18):

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Codename Baboushka #1-5 (“The Conclave of Death”) by Antony Johnston (writer), Shari Chankhamma (artist/colorist), and Simon Bowland (letterer). $3.99 each, FC, Image.

The second Antony Johnston comic this month isn’t as good as The Fuse, and I’m not sure if I want to keep getting it in single issue format or at all. The concept is fine – Annika Malikov is a Russian crime boss who was pushed out by other Russian crime bosses and found asylum in the States, and she’s basically blackmailed into working for a shadowy government agency (I would love it if someone wrote a story featuring every single shadowy government organization ever and what happens when they bump up against each other – it would obviously be a comedy!) into working for the U.S. So she goes on board a cruise ship to bid on the data that an ex-CIA boss has put up for auction, and everything goes sideways when Somali pirates crash the party and disrupt all the civilized criminals at the auction. So “Baboushka” – she has white hair, she explains, hence the nickname – is trapped on a ship, trying to find the data while not getting killed. It should be a fun time for all.

Except … it’s not, at least for me. The story and art aren’t bad, but there’s something missing that keeps me from liking this more. As a few characters actually point out, the bad guy’s scheme – which I don’t really want to spoil – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, for a few different reasons, and Johnston lampshading it doesn’t really solve it. There’s plenty of violence and mayhem, and while Johnston lets us know that whatever data the ex-CIA guy is selling would be very damaging on the open market, we don’t ever really get a sense that it would be beyond everyone telling us it would be. In that sense it’s a MacGuffin just so Baboushka can show us how bad-ass she is, which she does quite well. But anyone can be bad-ass. When the stakes are nothing more than “she’s pissed off that someone dared mess with her,” there’s very little reason to care. The entire arc feels like a set-up for the final few pages, where things get a bit more interesting. The final few pages are a good way to propel the story forward, but it doesn’t feel like it needed to take five issues to get there.

Chankhamma’s art is fine, but for me, it doesn’t really fit the subject matter. Her art is slightly cartoonish, and while I certainly don’t think it has to be like Steve Epting’s on Velvet (another spy comic with a female lead), it would help to be a bit more weighty. The sketchiness of the art makes it a bit less serious, and as the book is generally serious (Annika is somewhat insouciant, but overall, the story is serious) and the art doesn’t quite match it. The sketchiness means the action scenes, at least the way the figures are drawn, are pretty good, but Chankhamma does not choreograph the action well, as her figures don’t look great in relation to each other and she often the panels are too cramped so the figures look odder than they should. I don’t know if Johnston writes this full-script, but either he’s not giving Chankhamma enough space or Chankhamma hasn’t quite figured out how to block fight scenes yet. Given that Johnston is a veteran comics writer, I want to blame Chankhamma, but it certainly could be a script problem. Chankhamma does use nice Photoshopped splashes of color for gunshots and blood spurts and other stuff like that, which is pretty keen, especially as she fits it into the line work quite well, and like I noted, the art isn’t really bad, it just doesn’t elevate the story as much as art can. And when the story does need some elevating, that’s a problem.

I like Johnston’s writing and, as I wrote above, the end of the arc really does give it some good momentum going forward, but I’m not sure if I trust the comic to be better than this arc. I might have to switch to at least one trade, because this arc, at least, really does work better reading it all in one sitting – even though most comics work better in arcs, some single issues are so good on their own that I want to read them, but this clearly is designed as chapters in a longer story. So I’ll have to think about it. Like most comics I buy, I really want to like this, but so far, it’s not really doing it for me.

One totally Airwolf panel (from issue #5):

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mandrake the Magician: The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers – Sundays 1935-1937 by Lee Falk (writer) and Phil Davis (artist). $39.99, 156 pgs, FC, Titan Comics.

I love that so many olde-tyme comics are getting fancy reprints, because the history of any medium is important, and while books get reprintings all the time, hundreds of movies are degrading in vaults and lots of old comics can’t be reproduced very well because the original art has been lost (or stolen, which is even sadder). Titan brings us Mandrake’s early Sunday funnies adventures, as Lee Falk (who, of course, later created the Phantom) and Phil Davis take our hero to exotic locations where he basically punks everyone. You don’t exactly want to get this because Falk’s stories are so good – if we get past the gentle, paternalistic racism of Mandrake’s relationship with Lothar, the monosyllabic African strong man who wears a leopard skin most of the time, there’s still the fact that Mandrake is basically God, so the fact that it takes him so long to work some things out is just Falk stretching things out so he can fill up several weeks of Sunday newspapers (he mastered decompression long before Bendis!). Mandrake visits a hidden kingdom of murderers and toys with the ruler, failing occasionally only because he gets cocky. Oh, and a dude falls in love with a panther. Yes, Mandrake transforms her into a woman (and later reveals that – wink wink – she’s really a human that he transformed into a cat), but it’s telling that the dude who marries her actually says he doesn’t care whether she’s a panther or a hobgoblin, he just wants her sweet, sweet booty. Yeah, it’s that kind of strip. Mandrake heads off to some exotic Asian country and helps spur a counter-revolution against a despot, and then teaches the rightful ruler a thing or two about letting his daughter love whomever she wants (Mandrake is just an old softie, I guess). He and Lothar meet a bunch of tiny people, who are menaced by strange, furred humans. Then Mandrake joins the circus just for shits and giggles, it seems – he literally has no reason to be there except he likes messing with the circus folk, although, as usual, he acts as matchmaker to more than a few couples. He and Lothar travel to another dimension to rescue the daughter of the professor who discovered it, and when he gets there, he finds men made out of metal, men made out of crystal, and regular human folk. Once again he allows the regular human folk triumph over the others, and once again he helps get two wholesome lovers together. Finally, he ends up in a strange land ruled by Prince Paulo, who built his castle upside-down and has all sorts of weird laws. He and Lothar overthrow Paulo and restore the rightful ruler, and are those two lovers that Mandrake helps get together? Why, of course!

Yes, it’s fairly simplistic. Mandrake’s only weaknesses, it seems, are total darkness and his cockiness, which means he takes a far longer time to rectify things because he’s so busy showing off. The representation of Lothar is, I suppose, fairly common for this era, and although he speaks poorly (“Me help master” and stuff like that), I guess it’s better than if he was a complete fool, which he’s not. He’s very strong and he helps out with the fisticuffs, as Mandrake doesn’t seem too interested in that, so although that’s a terrible stereotype, at least it’s something of a “positive” racist stereotype. It’s rather strange, though – near the end of this collection, Lothar actually speaks in regular English sentences a few times, and it’s as if Falk forgot to “infantilize” his speech, because he reverts pretty quickly. The stories are ridiculous, sure, but they’re exciting and adventurous and while I have a feeling that the furry men in the “tiny people” story are some kind of racial stereotype (I just can’t figure out if they are or which stereotype they’re supposed to be), at least the bad guys are just regular bad guys and not horrid Asians or black people or Native Americans or some other ethnic group that white Americans didn’t like. I guess that’s something?

Davis’s art is the real highlight here, as it usually is when we discuss old comics. It’s fascinating, to me, to see such old art, because the stereotype is that art back in the day wasn’t too sophisticated, and when we look at some early superhero stuff, that’s often true. But it’s also axiomatic, both in the days of yore and today, that if you give the artist some time, the work will be better. Davis was drawing the daily strip, true, and who knows what other work he was doing, but his Sunday strips are magnificent to behold, and I have to believe it’s because he wasn’t burdened by so much work. The first story is honestly the worst – the figures are stiff and often cramped, the panels are squeezed onto the page, often wrecking perspective. The art, in other words, looks like what we “expect” from comic book art of the mid-1930s. I’m not entirely sure what Davis did between the end of “The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers” and “The Land of the Fakirs,” but they face each other in the book, so you can see the difference very clearly. The lines are stronger, the figures looser and more animated, and the shading is exquisite. The coloring is richer, too, but from what I can tell, the originals (at least for the first two stories) were in black and white, so I’m not sure why the coloring would be better going forward if they were added later. (Here is the first page of the first story, and here is the first page of the second story.) Davis’s inking becomes more and more amazing, as he using beautiful hatching to add wonderful texture to the scenes, and his details are terrific (look at the explosion of the trains on this page and marvel at the inking!). Falk, perhaps, pared down the stories so that the panels per page would be fewer, allowing Davis to breathe a bit more, so the problems with perspective were cleaned up and the characters were able to “move” a bit better, and the art remains dazzling throughout. He even manages to resist making Lothar a horrible stereotype (like Ebony White, for instance), as the sidekick is a tall, strong, even attractive dude. Falk’s stories are entertaining, no doubt, if you can get past the cultural dissonance that we have to get by whenever we read stuff from a different era, but Davis’s art is really the reason to check this out.

It’s always neat to pick up comics from the past, even if it’s just for their historical resonance. Mandrake isn’t a great comic by any means, but it’s fun and weird and lovely to look at. Yay, olde-tyme comics!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Simon & Schuster, 332 pgs, 1929.

I’ve occasionally mentioned here that when I was younger, I didn’t read a lot of “classic” literature, mainly because it wasn’t assigned to me in school. So recently, I’ve been making up for that, and in the past few years I’ve read Bleak House (excellent), Crime and Punishment (dumb), Madame Bovary (overrated), Nostromo (very good, although I still like Heart of Darkness more), and some others. I still have more down the alphabetical line, but this time, it’s Hemingway’s turn!

In high school, I read The Old Man and the Sea and thought it was pretty good, but I never really got into Hemingway after that. I could have sworn I read another one of his books, but the two candidates – The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls – don’t ring a bell (so to speak) when I look at their plot summaries. So maybe I just thought I read them because they’re so famous? A few years ago, I saw his house in Key West and visited his favorite bar, so I couldn’t really say I had only read a little Hemingway, right? I had to jump right in!

Except … this novel is awful. I know it’s early in his career, so maybe he gets better, but this was critically and commercially successful at the time of its publication, so it’s not like it’s an obscure book that only later became something people sought out. But it’s terrible. Hemingway, I know, was a pioneer in terse, pointed prose, but being influential doesn’t mean it’s good – Hemingway is the spiritual descendant ancestor of writers like John Grisham and Dan Brown, and for that he shouldn’t be forgiven. I’m not surprised that a lot of his books have been made into movies, since this book, at least, is very much like a screenplay – we get a few descriptions of the setting, and then pages and pages of dialogue. It’s terrible dialogue, true, but at least it’s something for actors to chew on, so of course they get adapted. The story is terrible, too – Frederic Henry, an American, is an ambulance driver in the Italian army in 1917, and he meets and falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barkley. He gets horribly wounded, fools around with her a lot, gets her pregnant, goes back to the front, gets demoralized by the retreat after the Battle of Caporetto, escapes execution by the Italians looking for someone to blame, escapes with Catherine to Switzerland, and then watches as first his son is stillborn and then Catherine dies right after giving birth. It’s horribly depressing, of course, but because Hemingway writes so clinically, it’s not very effecting – these things just happen, with Henry narrating them as if watching them from a far distance. He breaks down at the very end, when Catherine dies, but his indifference to his son’s death is obnoxious, and even the retreat through Italy – which actually contains some nice writing – is too sterile to be really effective. Hemingway never even gives us a sense that Catherine and Frederic are in love – they say it often enough, but Frederic is fairly coy with her early on, Catherine herself is written as somewhat unstable so it’s unclear if her feelings are real, and only when they’re sitting around in Switzerland do we get a sense that they actually like each other. By then, however, we don’t care.

Hemingway’s simplistic writing style has its fans, I guess, and there is something effective about it, especially when the very few instances of beautiful writing show up (“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one of them and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”) to show that Hemingway could actually write pretty well. But the blandness of the writing works against the story, because it makes the themes of the book – love, of course, but also loyalty, the crush of war, and fear of death – pretty bland, too, and when they come up, it’s hard to invest much in it because Hemingway and his protagonist don’t. Yes, Hemingway was manly and his characters are all manly, but if that’s true, then he should write novels with better plots. I liked King Solomon’s Mines even though Haggard didn’t get into his characters’ inner turmoil too much (more than Hemingway does, though!) because it was a fine adventure story. Hemingway wanted to write “serious” literature, it seems, but without any introspection. It comes off as bland, though.

Oh well. I don’t need to read Hemingway to still read a lot of great books, so I guess I don’t need to read anything else by him. Let’s just move on!

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by David Tipton (adapter), Scott Tipton (adapter), Ron Joseph (artist), Jordi Escuin (colorist), Deron Bennett (letterer), Neil Uyetake (letterer), Justin Eisinger (collection editor), and Alonzo Simon (collection editor). $19.99, 100 pgs, FC, IDW. Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Mycroft Holmes, and Professor Moriarty created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

I have never read the novel on which this comic is based, nor seen the movie, but I guess it’s something rather important among Sherlockians. I’ve never been a huge fan of Holmes stuff, although I’ve read all the original stories more than once, so I just never got around to this one. I’m not sure this comic is the best way to be introduced to it, unless it’s a faithful adaptation, in which case the book and movie aren’t worth much time, either.

The two biggest plot points about this pastiche are that Holmes’s addiction to cocaine is far worse than Conan Doyle ever made it in the stories and that Holmes meets Sigmund Freud. Freud was famous enough in 1891, I reckon, so that his presence in the story isn’t too far-fetched, and cocaine addiction is, of course, quite serious. But this is something of a ham-fisted effort by either Meyer or the Tiptons (whether the book is like this or just the adaptation, I can’t say, obviously), as we get a Moriarty MacGuffin, we get the easiest withdrawal from cocaine in history, we get a plot about a European war that might have been fresh in 1974 (I don’t want to pick on the plot too much even though I’ve seen it a lot, because for all I know, it was fresh in 1974!). The mystery itself is fine, but it’s very unclear how Holmes thwarted a European war (which, of course, he didn’t – he only “delayed” it). Yes, the Kaiser was building up his armed forces, but there’s no indication in this story that he’s planning to do anything with that except rattle his saber, which he did quite often. There were moments in actual history where the European powers came close to war, and there was no Holmes there to stop it, so claiming he stopped it in 1891 doesn’t make much sense. The big revelation of the story, which I won’t spoil despite the book being 42 years old, is quite dumb and instead of adding nuance to the original canon (which I think a good pastiche ought to do), it detracts significantly from it and makes Holmes look rather idiotic. It’s a weird misstep in an otherwise fairly tame pastiche.

Joseph’s art is odd, partly because it’s far too heavily rendered by the colorist, Escuin, so we get that thick, textured line work that can work on fabric but works less well on human skin. Joseph’s uncolored pencil work isn’t bad, but it’s flooded by the coloring, which is too bad. However, Joseph has some issues, too, mainly with proportion. His figures occasionally look like children playing dress-up in adult clothes, because they look small and their clothes don’t seem to fit. Also occasionally, the figures appear beside other things – carriages and buildings, for instance – and they look too large compared to those things (or those things look too small), which again throws us out of whack. He doesn’t have to do a lot with the art – as with many Holmes stories, there’s not a lot of action – and he does a decent job simply telling the story, but the little things that make it slightly off are vexing.

I don’t mind Holmes pastiches, of course – I’ve read several in comics form – but this one has a reputation, and I had hoped it would be a bit better. The deductions are fine, and Freud being as smart as Holmes in many ways is nicely done, but it’s just not all that good. Again, I don’t know if it’s the source material or the adaptation, but it’s just okay.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thor volume 2: Who Holds the Hammer? by Jason Aaron (writer), Noelle Stevenson (writer), CM Punk (writer), Russell Dauterman (artist), Timothy Truman (artist), Marguerite Sauvage (artist/colorist), Rob Guillory (artist/colorist), Matthew Wilson (colorist), Frank Martin (colorist), Joe Sabino (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $19.99, 90 pgs*, FC, Marvel. Let’s just say everyone in here is created by Lee and Kirby, okay? There are a shit-ton of characters in here, and I don’t feel like listing them all.

* This page count does not include the reprint of What If? #10, because fuck Marvel.

I’m not going to spend much time on the actual comic – it’s absolutely beautiful, because Dauterman is a fantastic artist, but the story is dumb and stretched out for no reason whatsoever. The mystery of who Lady Thor is really isn’t that compelling, we don’t even find out why XY Thor is unworthy (it’s been almost two years since Nick Fury whispered sweet nothings in his ear, and I guess we still don’t know what Sammy LJ actually said to him), and the fact that Odin is the main bad guy of this “run” is dumb, too, as the enchantment on Mjolnir clearly states that if anyone is worthy, they can pick it up, so why would Odin get so peeved that the “worthy” one is a chick? Plus, while I’m not going to give the identity of Lady Thor away (although I assume anyone who cares already knows), exactly how did she get to the hammer to pick it up? You know, if I start asking questions about this story, I’ll go insane, so I’ll just say that it’s disappointing because it wastes stunning art on a story that is not very good. But other things occurred to me as I was reading this, so let’s get to them!

1. Brunnhilde. I am always fascinated by the transpositioning of Brunhild from historical reality to fictional reality. Brunhild (c. 543-613) was a Visigothic princess who married the Merovingian king Sigibert in 566 and dominated politics in northern France until her death in 613. She was married to one king, mother of another, grandmother to two more, and great-grandmother to another, and she earned such enmity from the rivals kings that she was executed by being trampled to death by horses by order of the king, Chlothar II. She was around 70 years old at the time, so she couldn’t have been too terribly threatening, so you can see the hatred she inspired (partly because it appears she was a better politician than many of the kings surrounding her). Brunhild was a Goth, of course, but by the middle of the sixth century, the Goths were probably as Mediterranean as they were Gothic, so the fact that this woman was transformed into a Germanic/Nordic icon fascinates me. It’s not clear if later epics in the North were inspired by her or not, but the fact that this ostensibly Spanish/Gothic woman has been turned into a blond warrior is very weird to me. I know it’s probably not to anyone else, but Valkyrie does show up in this volume, and they call her by her real name, so I thought it was worth mentioning.

2. Continuity. This is the second volume of the second series about Thor that Jason Aaron has written. He’s currently working on the third Thor series he’s written for Marvel, even though there’s no real break in time between them all (except for the editorially-mandated one for Secret Wars). I like continuity quite a bit – it means I don’t always get some of the references, but a good writer will be able to work around that, and when readers do get the references, it’s pretty cool. I don’t mind that Aaron is referencing his earlier run on Thor (Marvel even provides a handy footnote), but it’s still kind of annoying when Jane Foster shows up in this volume dying from cancer when she hasn’t shown up at all in this volume. Remember, the first volume of Lady Thor is “VOLUME ONE,” so you might be mistaken in thinking that it’s, you know, something brand new. But it’s really not – a lot of it is continuing Aaron’s own story from the previous iteration of Thor. Marvel’s obsession with constant reboots makes this very confusing even for someone like me, who’s been reading comics for almost 30 years. How does Marvel expect newer readers to keep up?

3. Diversity. Lady Thor is part of Marvel’s concerted effort to diversify their line, which is great, but I wonder about its efficacy. Using only anecdotal evidence from the comics shop I use (which is neither as ridiculously diverse as comic book shops in Manhattan, say, but they do try to keep a lot of different stuff on their shelves), Marvel’s efforts aren’t selling very well. Lady Thor isn’t selling very well, Sam Wilson Captain America isn’t selling very well, Squirrel Girl isn’t selling very well, Hellcat isn’t selling very well … you get the idea. The problem is, of course, is that I imagine that most people who still buy regular superhero comics are the same people who have been buying them for years – white dudes. These days they’re middle-aged white dudes who grew up with the characters and want their male Thor and Steve Rogers Cap and Peter Parker Spider-Man, and that’s that. And I wonder if they’re still Marvel’s (and DC’s) primary audience, even with all the inroads made into more diverse groups. My question is: Does Marvel know who’s actually reading their comics? Have they done any market research on it? As we all know, the people who write on the Internet about comics are a tiny, tiny, tiny portion of the audience, and while they often clamor for diversity and Marvel responds to them, is there a large influx of young women, minorities, queer, and trans people going into comics shops and buying those diverse titles or at least getting them digitally or in trade? I have no idea, and I suspect Marvel doesn’t either. If someone clamors for something and gets it, there needs to be a groundswell of support behind it (read: money being spent) to make it worth it. If this version of Thor is selling like crazy, great. If Miles Morales outsells Peter Parker, great. But it would be nice if Marvel had some data behind it, because I suspect they simply look at what retailers are ordering and think everyone’s buying those comics. My retailer’s orders on several Marvel books is way down, but does Marvel think that’s because middle-aged white men don’t want to read about Chick Thor or Black Captain America, or do they think it’s a different reason? My daughter reads some comics, and I hope she will keep buying them after she leaves home, but she’s not particularly interested in a lot of superheroes and – and this is a key point – I buy her the comics. Marvel’s pricing has driven me, for one, away from their single issues, and if they pulling this shit with trades (sticking old reprints into volumes to pad them out), I’m out of that, too. How many people aren’t buying these more diverse comics because they don’t want to take the chance on a $3.99 book? If you’re paying that much for a single comic, most people will probably stick to things they know, even if the quality isn’t as good. It’s dumb, but it’s human nature. If Marvel wants to get people who don’t usually buy comics into comics, the two biggest barriers are price and accessibility – most people don’t want to pay that much and they don’t want to have to go to a comic book store every week or every two weeks or whenever. I love that Marvel and DC and comic companies in general are trying to expand their readership. I’m not sure pissing off the people who do still go to the comic book store every week and drop a lot of money on single issues even though trades are usually more cost-effective is the way to go about it, though.

4. What If? #10. This is the padding that Marvel added to the trade to make it “worth” 20 dollars. It’s a story from the 1970s in which Jane Foster finds Mjolnir before Donald Blake. It’s a weird story that gets even weirder at the end, where Odin gives the hammer back to Donald Blake and grants godhood to Jane so that he, Odin, can get it on with her, as he’s fallen in lust with our comely lass. Man, the Seventies were weird.

5. Fuck Marvel. Marvel could have easily released all of this “volume” plus the Annual (which is pretty neat) in a nice $25-trade. I’m trying not to fall for their pricing shit anymore, and I’m getting better at it. But fuck them.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful by Florence + the Machine, Island Records, 2015.

I really liked Florence + the Machine’s debut, Lungs, and I really, really liked their sophomore album, Ceremonials (despite it sagging a bit in the middle), so of course I was going to buy their third album. Unfortunately, it lacks something that sparked the first two albums, and it’s hard to put my finger on it. It starts off well, with “Ship To Wreck” getting things going – it’s a bit jauntier than we might expect from the band, but the lyrics are sufficiently dark. Then we get the magnificent throbbing of “What Kind of Man,” which begins by slithering around as Welch gets into the song, and then the nasty guitars kick in and her voice gets raspier and angrier. The album takes cues from “The Odyssey,” but you don’t need to know that to love this song, even though the great lyrics “And with one kiss you inspired a fire of devotion that lasted for twenty years” makes it a bit more obvious. After that, the album gets a bit more uneven. “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” is a fine song, as it begins quiet and quickly speeds up, with Welch’s voice matching both moods of the song. “Delilah” is also a fine song, driving along the lyrics nicely. “Caught” is a wistful post-love song, which Welch always sells well, and the chorus lets her be a bit more boisterous, which is really nice for her gorgeous alto. The final song on the album (without the extra tracks, of course), is “Mother,” has a nice guitar twang as its foundation, and Welch’s lyrics form a prayer to the world – “Mother, make me … make me a big grey cloud so I can rain on you things I can’t say out loud” – that fits the spiritual nature of the album in general. The problem is that the songs I didn’t mention – and there are a few of them – don’t add much to the album and they feel a bit like filler. I know that a good deal of the album is following a general “Odysseyian” theme, and Welch has always been interested in water-themed stuff (both the previous albums were heavy with it, too), but she doesn’t need to stick to it so much that we get some dull songs out of it. For some reason, nothing on this album feels transcendent, which is a disappointment after the genius of (much of) Ceremonials. It’s a good album, but because I know the band can do better, it feels like a lesser work to me. That might be unfair, I suppose, but that’s the way it is.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

Tokyo Ghost volume 1: The Atomic Garden by Rick Remender (writer), Sean Murphy (artist), Matt Hollingsworth (colorist), Rus Wooton (letterer), and Sebastian Girner (editor). $9.99, 111 pgs, FC, Image.

I’ve been wary of Remender since the end of Uncanny X-Force, because it ended so very, very poorly and it made me realize that Remender has some problems as a writer – namely, that he has one or two great ideas that he puts into early issues and then has nothing left, but he doesn’t let go. I dropped Black Science for this reason – it had a good hook but it was empty once you started getting into it, and I’ve been cool on Remender ever since. A friend of mine at the comic book store suggested I give Tokyo Ghost a chance, and it’s only 10 bucks for five issues, so I could deal with that, plus it’s drawn by Murphy, who’s amazing, so I figured I’d give it a look.

Remender sets the book in 2089 Los Angeles and gives us a world utterly dependent on technology, where the star – Debbie – is one of the few who has no technological enhancements. She’s in love with her childhood friend, Teddy, who’s so hooked on enhancements that he never speaks, and together the two of them act as “constables” for the tech industry, reining in those who go too far. Debbie’s big idea is to head to Japan, which has gone off tech completely, and her boss just so happens to send her and Teddy there to steal their clean food and water because, of course, the Angelenos have squandered theirs. She’s not sure if her boss knows about her plan, but it doesn’t matter, because she and Teddy head off to Japan, where Teddy begins to detox from his tech addiction but, of course, bad things are lurking. Oh dear.

Murphy’s art is stunning, of course, and it makes the book work quite well. His detailed work means that he’s equally comfortable with the nightmarish vision of Los Angeles and the idyllic version of Japan, filling them both with wonderful little things that make them come alive. Los Angeles is a broken-down horror, where even the rich sections look terrible, and Japan is a beautiful Eden, which makes the bad things that happen there a bit more tragic. Murphy is fantastic at gorgeous splashes, which have such a nice impact when they appear (unlike far too many superhero comics these days), and he’s also adept at using negative space – there’s an amazing panel where someone tumbles over a waterfall and Murphy pushes the action to the side so that the wall of water overwhelms everything else. His storytelling is tremendous – the art is frenetic quite often, but Murphy keeps it all under control, and his quiet moments are amazing, as he allows us to see Debbie and Teddy connecting in ways they haven’t been able to before. The colors are tremendous, too – Los Angeles is all hot oranges and nauseating pinks, but once we shift to Japan we get lush greens and soothing blues, which contrasts both with Los Angeles and the inevitable violence that intrudes on the peacefulness. Murphy continues to amaze, and he’s a big reason the book is worth a look.

Remender’s story is … okay, I guess. Usually, his first issues are pretty good, because he has a good idea and he lays it all out in the first few issues. However, I’m kind of glad I bought this in trade, because the first issue of this story is absolutely awful, and had I bought it in singles, I probably wouldn’t have picked up another one. Remender gives us Debbie and Teddy chasing after Davey Trauma, a murderer who has somehow becomes trapped in the Internet, so he can now shift his consciousness wherever there’s tech, which is, of course, almost everywhere. Yes, Remender is sort-of using the plot from the mid-Nineties classic Virtuosity, because if you’re going to steal from the greats! I mean, look at Russell Crowe in that suit:

Anyway, Davey speaks in “hip” slang from about five years ago, because he loves this era and Remender can’t be bothered to come up with some new slang. This is about as painful as you might expect. The entire issue is a big chase scene, which means that Murphy gets to have a lot of fun (and the issue looks superb), but which means we get to read Davey’s awful, awful dialogue far too much and read Debbie’s internal monologue, which is fairly whiny, far too much. Remender tries desperately to sell us on the love story between Debbie and Teddy, but he doesn’t do a very good job of it – Teddy has no discernible personality, and when we flashback to their youth, he comes off as idiotic and desperate, not qualities that someone like Debbie would seem to be attracted to. The subsequent issues are a bit better, as the idea of a Luddite Eden and what it would mean to the main characters and the villains is intriguing, and Remender slows down enough to at least give his protagonists some personality … not enough, but some. Debbie still seems like she’s attracted to Teddy because he’s a giant bohunk who can rock her world in the sack, but while that’s more power to her, it doesn’t make us really care about them. The inciting event for the violence is dumb and fairly predictable, and while I’m aware that adults often act juvenile in the real world, this seems particularly juvenile. Remender really bends things to his will so that Teddy and Debbie become the villains, even though it would be easy to prove they’re not. So while the comic improves after the first issue, it wasn’t a particularly hard bar to leap and Remender doesn’t clear it by much.

It’s a frustrating book, because it’s obviously wonderful to look at and it’s not the worst story in the world, but it’s not written very well, and it makes me wonder if Remender just isn’t that good in general. I like some of his earlier stuff – I still haven’t finished Fear Agent, but I’ve read most of it and it’s quite good, and that first arc on Uncanny X-Force is really good – but recently, whenever I’ve tried his work, it just doesn’t do it for me. But that might just be me. Oh well.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Midnight by Grace Potter, Hollywood Records, 2015.

There’s only one or two songs on Grace Potter’s solo debut that aren’t excellent, and even those are still pretty good. For those people who have bought Grace Potter and the Nocturnals albums in the past, this is a pretty big departure, as the Nocturnals play more bluesy rock (especially their latest two albums), while Potter solo goes almost full disco on this album. But hey, everyone likes disco, right?

Potter is also incredibly sexy on this album, which adds some good spice to the songs. This begins right away, with “Hot to the Touch,” the album’s first track, which is, well, all about sex. There’s some nice reverb on the song, some nice driving guitars, and all kinds of slinkiness. “Your Girl” is another terrific disco tune, with that looping flute sound that you get on so many disco songs and a great hooky bass line. Potter aches for some dude, but she’s not going to go after him because she likes his girl too much. Isn’t that just sweet? Another great disco song is “Delirious,” in which Ms. Potter sings about staying awake so long that she becomes, you guessed it, delirious. It has another great beat and it ends with an amazing quasi-instrumental section, with Potter wailing over it with that wonderful scratchy voice of hers. “Instigators” isn’t a disco song – it’s the hardest rocking song on the album, but Potter growls her way through it beautifully, and it’s a pretty decent protest song, too. A candidate for hardest song on the album is also “Look What We’ve Become,” in which Potter snarls through a positive affirmation anthem while the drums march behind her and the guitar whines along with her. It’s a nasty song, but nastiness is needed on it!

Potter isn’t all about disco, though. The album veers into other territory, as well. There are some very nice softer songs, like “Empty Heart,” which still has a good beat even though it’s slowed down a bit and Potter plays an acoustic guitar, making it a bit more like the early Nocturnals albums. “The Miner” is another great slower song, singing about losing herself after a relationship because everything has been taken from her. “Nobody’s Born With a Broken Heart” is an uplifting song that still manages to get into some sad situations. The music soars as Potter sings about pathetic characters desperate for a second chance. It feels a bit like a spiritual, which isn’t surprising as Potter has gone to that well before successfully.

I’ve been a fan of the Nocturnals for a few years, and their most recent album (The Lion The Beast The Beat) is superb, so I was a bit worried when I heard Potter was making a solo album. I’m glad she didn’t try to recreate the band’s sound, going in a different direction entirely, even if a few songs sound like they could easily fit on one of the band’s albums. It’s a terrific album, and while I hope the Nocturnals make more music, I certainly wouldn’t mind if Potter continues doing some solo work, either.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

**********

All right, let’s check out some random stuff before I finish this month’s review post!

I saw this somewhere, and I thought it was pretty darned cool:

This is an interesting article about how legends can occasionally be used to discover fact. History is awesome, y’all.

Here is Flavor Flav doing the weather for a local Salt Lake City news station, very poorly I might add. For me, the strangest thing is that he’s wearing a Penn State basketball sweatshirt. Penn State basketball is not very good, and why Flav is wearing something that references them is beyond me.

I can’t embed this, but it’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while. I know edited videos like this are common, but this one is a cut above, I think.

Here is an advertisement for Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Why should you care? Just trust me!!!!

So I guess some big movie came out, and people are somewhat divided about it? I don’t know – I spent last weekend Doomsday prepping, so who knows what’s going on in our poor, doomed world. If you can handle reading more about said movie, you can check out Ty Templeton’s breakdown, which as usual gets to the heart of the matter. Armond White is perhaps the most hilarious reviewer around, because he’s so darned smart but so very, very wrong in so many ways, and of course he wrote about the movie (spoiler alert: OF COURSE HE LOVED IT!!!!). Finally, you can’t miss this FAQ, because I’m sure you have questions about the movie!!!!

I didn’t get to review everything I bought because the fifth week came so late in the month, so maybe I’ll have to get on that for April. Until our sadly truncated Previews post comes out (because of the lack of DC stuff, don’t you know), I hope everyone has a great weekend!

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