Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

22 July 2016

Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America

Collects: Captain America: Sam Wilson #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785196402

What is this?: Sam Wilson lets it be known he has political feelings, then takes on the Serpent Society — I mean, Serpent Solutions.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer, artists Daniel Acuna and Paul Renaud, and penciler Joe Bennett

First things first: if you are offended, as some reviewers on Amazon are, by politics in your Captain America comics, you should not be reading Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America. Sam Wilson was a social worker while he was Falcon, and he has had a vastly different upbringing from Steve Rogers. To not have Sam be more political than Steve would be a poor reading of the character, and writer Nick Spencer is completely right to have Sam take a stand on issues such as immigration.

The funny thing is that other than supporting the human rights of illegal immigrants, Sam doesn’t make any controversial pronouncements. We’re just told people are mad that he has. Spencer fills the book with anti-Wall Street sentiment, but honestly, I’m not sure many people get mad at the idea that investment bankers and stock traders are out of touch with the rest of society, often make amoral decisions more concerned with gaining money than acting ethically toward lower economic classes, and are often out of reach of the law. I think people don’t like being told that by people who have “agendas,” though, and comic-book writers who are too transparent are probably seen as people with agendas.

Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America cover And let’s face it: in accordance with Marvel’s “More than One of Everything” policy, you don’t even have to read this book if you want to read a Captain America title. Just read the other one, and you’ll be fine. Now, as for whether you should read Not My Captain America

Sam Wilson is a likeable hero, not quite at ease with his new role, and Spencer mixes Sam’s doubts with his determination. Sam is someone I want to read about, someone whose elevation to perhaps the premiere Marvel hero identity seems earned without the character being conceited about it. Spencer gives Sam a sidekick, who, despite his silly origin, seems to be the kind of sidekick Sam should have: someone with ties to Sam’s legacy and who comes from a disadvantaged and non-privileged background.

A likeable hero and the promise of a good sidekick is an excellent start, but the other choices Spencer makes are less promising. The series begins with Sam sitting between two bros from New Jersey on a commercial airline, recapping and reminiscing about what has happened in the eight-month gap following Secret Wars. OK, fine — being in public gives readers a chance to see how normal people react to Sam. But it still involves Sam spending two issues spending non-flashback time between two bros, and I think Spencer could have chosen a better venue to show the public’s opinion of Sam.

The two issues of flashback prevents the book from gaining any momentum. The first issue has non-talky bits, like Sam and his team wrapping up a Hydra cell, but it isn’t satisfying. It’s a taste of action — inconsequential, not even complete enough to intrigue. Interspersing the story with things I don’t care about, like a detailed account of Sam’s falling out with SHIELD, waters the story down; if you can’t tell an interesting story about the conflict, mention it briefly and add more depth to Sam’s battle vs. Armadillo. (How Sam handles himself against a real heavyweight brawler should be important, given that unlike Steve, Sam’s best physical attribute is agility, not strength.) If I had been buying single issues, I would have abandoned the series after one issue. It’s not until Not My Captain America’s overarching storyline begins, five pages into #2, that the book starts to capture my interest.

Sam is working with Misty Knight, a private detective who used to date Iron Fist. As far as I can tell, Misty has never associated with Captain America or Sam Wilson in the past; she has usually worked with her long-time partner Colleen Wing or some iteration of Heroes for Hire. Why is she working with Sam Wilson now? It isn’t really answered; given that we learn a great deal of stuff that isn’t all that important, why couldn’t Spencer have mentioned Misty’s motivation? Despite how great Misty is, I get the feeling she was chosen as a race-appropriate romantic interest.

Spencer also brings back two characters from Ed Brubaker‘s last run: D-Man and Diamondback. D-Man, who is generally portrayed as a goofy but usually competent hero, was killed by Brubaker in a gritty story that was uniquely unsuited for D-Man. I’m glad he’s been brought back to serve as part of Sam’s support staff, a role he fits admirably. Diamondback, an ex-member of the Serpent Society who became Steve Rogers’s girlfriend and a hero, has fallen on hard times after her fiancé died of cancer, forcing her to become a stripper to make ends meet. But she was a SHIELD agent during Brubaker’s run. Couldn’t she have fallen back on that … ?


Oh …

This is something that got wiped out in the reordering of universes after Secret Wars, right? I … I need a moment. To think about … about the fragile nature of continuity, even in Marvel. Just … just give me a moment.

Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By.

Well, I still think “stripper” is a bit too obvious of a profession for the founder of a mercenary group called “Bad Girls.”

The villains in Not My Captain America are quite a bit better. Spencer’s decision to transform the Serpent Society into Serpent Solutions seems exciting; rather than a brawling collection of snake-themed villains (which I like), he’s turned them into a group that leases evil intellectual property to unscrupulous businessmen. Unfortunately, the idea has several holes in it, the largest of which is that most of the seventeen or so members don’t do anything other than participate in the final battle with Sam and his allies. Instead, Serpent Solutions is reduced to Viper spouting One Percenter catchphrases to executive boards of amoral corporations. Spencer gives no indication that any Serpents have created the IP Viper is peddling.

Instead, some of that IP is being produced by mad scientist Karl Malus, an old Captain America foe who recently was been eaten and crapped out by Carnage; because of that, Malus has his own symbiote. This should make him terrifying, but instead, Spencer decides to defuse the tension by having Malus turn Sam into Cap Wolf. (Steve Rogers was turned into a wolf in one of the silliest storylines of Captain America, v. 1.) It’s a dumb joke, although given that Redwing, Sam’s falcon, has a sonic weapon, I’m not sure how much of a threat Karnage Malus should present.

(I do admire that Serpent Solutions is very professional about how it handles Misty’s attempt to break into their office building: She has to sign in, and a group of thugs are sent to the first floor to meet her.)

The art is uniformly good, although having three different artists on the initial arc is never a positive sign. All three have similar restrained styles that work well together. Daniel Acuña draws #1-3, which means he’s saddled with a lot of boring flashback work; he does his best, but I’m not sure anyone could make it interesting. In #3, I wish he would have played up the visual elements of Malus’s symbiote more, since the writing fails to make Malus the creepy adversary he should be. Paul Renaud manages to make the Serpents impressive, and I enjoyed the incongruity of Viper playing golf (wearing his mask) with other executives. His Diamondback is a bit too cheesecake, but then again, she is supposed to be a stripper. Joe Bennett gets the big fight scene at the end, but even though it’s certainly competent, it doesn’t exactly answer the question of how Joaquin, a nascent superhero, can evade the Serpent Society. (Given his wings, you’d think the answer would be “flying out of reach.” You, like me, would be wrong.) It also doesn’t have the impact a storyline ending brawl between a bunch of snakes and heroes should have. Also: Whoever gave Misty that open-midriff costume — probably Acuña — has a lot to answer for.

Oh, and one last thing: If you are a publisher of superhero comics coming out of an event that frelling reorders reality, consider putting some frakking footnotes into the text so readers have an idea about what comes from previous issues (which readers can probably buy in book form!) and what the writer is creating at this moment. It seems only considerate (and an opportunity to huck your damn product).

Rating: Captain America’s shield Captain America’s shield Half of Captain America’s indestructible shield (2.5 of 5)

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15 July 2016

Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #241-9 (1991)

Released: March 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 224 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558659

What is this?: After avoiding a demigod’s son’s revenge plot, Conan and his cohorts join the Khorajan army.

The culprits: Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gary Hartle and Mike Docherty

Since the next volume of the Chronicles of ConanChronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories — is scheduled to come out next week, I thought I’d review the most recent volume as a warm-up.

Is Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories better than the preceding volume? Oh, Crom, yes — it would be almost impossible for Roy Thomas, Conan’s first writer, to conceive of anything as dire as The Death of Conan and Other Stories.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories coverWith that low bar cleared, it’s time to look at whether Empire of the Undead is good. That question is a bit more complicated …

Those who know Thomas by his superhero work probably realize Rascally Roy never met a bit of continuity he didn’t think he could mine for a story. That’s the case with Empire of the Undead, where Thomas follows Michael Higgins’s continuity-ignoring implant with a storyline that brings back old friends and old rivals. Red Sonja returns, but that’s not so unusual: she pops up every now and then. Thomas also reunites the surly Cimmerian with Zula, one of the pirates who sailed with Conan and Bêlit in Conan the Barbarian #84-94 — a deep cut, to be sure.

Zula is a welcome addition — I’ve said before that Conan works better in the long term when he has allies to work with. But the returning villains … I’m not sure. Thomas introduces El-Ron, the son of Zukala, whom Conan fought in #5 and #115 and allied with in #14, and reintroduces the bat-like Afterlings, which appeared in #43, Stygian wizard Shu-Onoru, Zula’s old master who appeared in #85-6, and Stygian prince Katuman, who appeared in Savage Sword of Conan #2 and 3. (Other characters from the past also pop up, but I’m not going to list them all.) Thomas also uses Varnae the Vampire, who has long been established as the most ancient vampire lord in the Marvel Universe, as a villain for the second storyline in Empire.

These villains fall flat, though. The returning characters don’t serve much narrative purpose, as each of them — save for Shu-Onoru, who has a strong connection to Zula — could have been a new character without sacrificing any effect on the plot. Varnae is particularly out of place, as the story he’s in has none of the traditional vampire trappings, and he’s defeated by the clichéd “one thing that can defeat him” — a magic spell that Zula reads, in this case. Also, the Conan editorial staff was lying down on the job; other than Zula, the book contained few footnotes stating which issues these characters came from. Strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary, but it would have been nice to give readers some context.

Despite Thomas’s determination to link everything in his latest run to something he did more than a decade before, the book largely succeeds. The first story, a three-parter called “The Sorcerer and the She-Devil,” is fine, with Red Sonja’s feisty return mostly managing to hide the plot’s unwillingness to let either her or Conan affect it. (Does Thomas have something against Scientology? Naming the villain El-Ron tends suggest he does, but I can’t find anything online about it.) The following two-parter with Varnae the Vampire is notable only for the return of Zula; otherwise, #244 and 245 is a series of fights, usually with the heroes losing, interrupted by monologues.

The book finally gets into gear with #246, when Conan, Sonja, and Zula arrive in besieged Khoraja. Conan begins to ascend the Khorajan military ladder, as he has done in many other cities and states, and helps the Khorajans defeat the desert nomad wizard who threatens the city. Thomas gives the story a little nuance, showing the Khorajans are not completely innocent: their high command is just as stupid as the generals Conan usually serves under, and the city has an oppressed minority that Sonja is ambivalent toward, even when they try to kill her. I also appreciate that Thomas ignores Conan’s final fight with the uncanny leader of the nomads — we all know Conan’s going to win, right? — and instead concentrates on Zula and Sonja’s battle with demonic underlings. I admit laughing out loud when after the battle Sonja and Zula found Conan in post-coital bliss with the Khorajan princess.

Additionally, Thomas gives more depth to Sonja than I anticipated he would. At first, Sonja displays her customary rivalry with Conan, although she lacks the usual camaraderie she usually has with him. (It turns out Sonja was hired to assassinate El-Ron, and Conan kept getting in the way of her plan.) But as the book goes on and she continues to adventure with Conan, her rivalry continues, although Conan is mystified at why she’s so angry about his successes. When Conan quickly becomes a captain in the Khorajan army, Sonja bristles. It’s easy to see why: in Empire, Sonja is every bit the warrior Conan is, but it’s always Conan who gets credit for being the superior warrior. Her resentment cools a bit at the end when Conan, elevated to general, promotes her to captain. Overall, Sonja is more insecure than usual, but I can live with that, given how difficult it must be to live, even for a while, in Conan’s shadow.

Artists Gary Hartle (#241-7) and Mike Docherty (#248-9) are solid artists, and I have no complaints about them. They aren’t superlative stylists like Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema, but both know how to draw Conan and his world, telling comprehensible stories. More importantly, in my eyes, they give Sonja more clothing than a chainmail bikini. Hartle’s one-piece swimsuit with lapels and a fur-trimmed cape is only a moderate improvement, but Docherty gets rid of the lapels (and cleavage) as soon as he can, adding leather armor around the neck and shoulders and a loincloth. It’s not practical, but it’s nice to see someone moving her in a more sartorially useful direction.

More amusing than Sonja’s clothing is the contrast between Conan’s interior and cover artists. Hartle and Docherty, as I mentioned, are good, but they never were considered “hot” artists; on the other hand, the covers are contributed by artists who were the most sought-after pencilers of the day. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio, a trio that would help found Image Comics the following year, contributed the covers for #241-3, and Art Adams drew #247-9. Those are impressive artists to line up for a title that was aimlessly wasting readers’ time in the previous collection.

No one’s going to pick up Empire if they haven’t been reading Chronicles of Conan for a long time. But if you made it through Death of Conan without your interest in Conan being extinguished, then you might as well pick up Empire, especially since Thomas seems to be adding a little more depth than he has to to the stories.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Half Conan symbol (2.5 of 5)

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08 July 2016

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF

Collects: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900052

What is this?: A girl with the Inhuman gene finds a Kree device coveted by time-lost cavemen, who are pursued by Devil Dinosaur, a literal dinosaur.

The culprits: Written by Amy M. Reeder and Brandon Montclare and penciled by Natacha Bustos

I can’t say I’ve ever been enchanted by the idea of Devil Dinosaur.

I mean, yes, I get the appeal: giant red T-Rex. But I’m not a big fan of high-concept ideas that go nowhere, and eventually the appeal of what amounts to a giant carnivorous (within the bounds of the Comics Code Authority) horse / dog has to wear thin after a while. It’s not like Devil Dinosaur has a huge range of emotions by himself (herself?).

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF coverBut I decided to give Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF a shot, and I’m glad I did.

Writers Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare create a sympathetic lead in Lunella Lafayette, a grade-school genius (her age is unclear) who is trying to keep her Inhuman gene from expressing. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by those not only of lesser intellect but also of much greater obliviousness. Her parents want her to be normal, which she clearly is not; her science teacher (or maybe her only teacher, who knows) teaches the students as if they are half-wits and is not prepared to deal with a gifted child. The token jock, Coach Hrbek, picks up an alien artifact as if it is a basketball.

It’s always easy to make the smart, picked-on kid sympathetic, and Lunella is no different. She has been rejected by the Future Foundation and other gifted schools, showing that while she’s very smart, she’s not considered Marvel Universe elite yet. Those schools would be Lunella’s ticket out of the unfair world she lives in, where she has to endure her underprepared teachers and classmates’ taunts (including the convenient nickname “Moon Girl”) in class. Outside the classroom, she retreats into her own world. It’s all by the book, but damned if I didn’t fall for it.

Lunella’s antagonists, the Killing Folk, are the standouts of the book. The Killing Folk are primitive humans who are the archenemies of Devil Dinosaur’s original sidekick, Moon Boy. In the distant past, Moon Boy manages to send the Killing Folk away, saving his people — the Small Folk — as he himself dies. Moon Boy has only delayed the problem, though, as the Killing Folk appear in the present and continue their dominance displays as soon as they acclimatize to the modern world. They are ridiculous — there’s no way they should dominate the Yancy Street Gang and New York police so quickly — but Reeder and Montclare use that to their benefit. To the people of Lunella’s neighborhood, the Killing Folk are just another gang, and the Killing Folk do their best to fulfill that explanation: after all, they’re terrorizing the Small Folk again, just like they did in their own time, and if that requires wearing hoodies and flashing gang signs, they are up for it.

The Killing Folk are in pursuit of what they call “the Nightstone,” although Lunella, who found it before they arrived, surmises it’s a Kree Omni-Wave Projector. Lunella hopes she’ll be able to use the projector to somehow suppress her Inhuman genes. This quest is a tricky point, literally and figuratively, that the writers don’t engage with. Twenty or more years ago, Lunella would have been afraid her mutant gene would express. That’s an easier metaphor for the reader to parse: as mutant powers come out in adolescence, mutancy goes along with puberty, a general change from child the person was to adult they will become. But the Inhuman gene might not ever express if the bearer doesn’t come in contact with Terrigen mist. Does that make the Inhuman gene more like a gene that triggers cancer, something that should be avoided if possible? Or is it still like the X-gene, a natural part of personal evolution?

How am I supposed to feel about Lunella’s quest? I don’t know. Lunella simply doesn’t want to go through the Inhuman change, which doesn’t clarify matters, and her parents don’t seem that troubled by it. Lunella’s motivations seem reasonable — I don’t know that I would want to be radically changed — but if Inhumans are the 21st-century mutants, then she should make her peace with it. Man, I’m confused, and not in a good way.

Devil Dinosaur makes his appearance pursuing the Killing Folk from the past into the present. Unfortunately, Devil Dinosaur is the book’s weak point. The scenes with Devil are the weakest — except perhaps his fight with the Hulk in #4 — in the book. Nothing is surprising about his meeting with Lunella or their interactions after that; of course Lunella dislikes him at first, and of course they become friends. After the Hulk captures DD, of course she springs him. It’s Buddy Cop 101, and it’s a bit tiresome. DD is at best a friendly dog, but he has little character beyond that.

And despite all the good things in BFF — and they are considerable — the big red doughnut hole in the center of the book holds it back considerably. I want to like the book more, but when Clifford Rex galumphs onto the page, the book’s development grinds to a halt for an action set piece, robbing Lunella’s story of momentum.

It’s not the artist’s fault those action scenes make the book drag, though. Natacha Bustos does a great job: her art is so clear, so precise, so … perfect. Her designs for the Killer Folk are great and make them a treat every time they show up. Occasionally, I find I have questions — how old are Lunella and her classmates, exactly? How did the fire at school start? (After I puzzled out that it was the careless use of matches in the girls’ bathroom, I was left with the question of how a porcelain floor catches fire and burns a classroom some distance away, but that’s a script problem, most likely.) Colorist Tamra Bonvillain gives the book a bright, optimistic color scheme that’s perfect for a young genius.

The brief appearance of the new Hulk in #4 is a separate problem from the rest of the book. Reeder and Montclare do their best to make the Cho Hulk unsympathetic: he’s vain, too cocksure, and learns nothing, which is always a problem for an intelligent protagonist. I realize they were trying to make Cho another adult who won’t listen to or help Lunella, forcing her to rely on her own wits to survive, but I’m also assuming their characterization of the new Hulk is accurate. If so, they considerably dampened my desire to read Totally Awesome Hulk, v. 1: Cho Time. I suppose Cho’s unappealing presence could be seen as a survival strategy for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, driving the audience away from a competing new book.

I want to like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, but I can’t help but think the book would be better off if Lunella was cut loose from the “Moon Girl” nonsense and Devil Dinosaur and left to her own devices. I’ll probably pick up v. 2, but that’s mostly because of the cliffhanger at the end of BFF

Rating: Devil Dinosaur symbol Devil Dinosaur symbol Devil Dinosaur symbol (3 of 5)

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01 July 2016

Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt

Collects: Howard the Duck #1-6, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6 (2016)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199380

What is this?: Howard looks for a way home but becomes a Living Nexus instead, with the entire cosmic pantheon searching for him; Howard and Squirrel Girl team up to defeat an insane cosplayer.

The culprits: Writer Chip Zdarsky, with help from Ryan North on both #6s, and penciler Joe Quinones, with help from Veronica Fish (#2) and Erica Henderson (Squirrel Girl #6)

Whenever I saw Howard the Duck was going to be revived, I had to remind myself that Steve Gerber’s not walking through that writing-room door. (Mostly because the creator of Howard the Duck has been dead since 2008.) Given that Howard has had received mixed reviews when not written by Gerber, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this new series.

It’s a relief to say that Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt is very funny and well worth a read. It isn’t Gerber-esque — little is — but it’s still funny.

Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt cover(The first Howard the Duck collection from this run, the confusingly numbered Howard the Duck, v. 0: What the Duck, is also funny, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it; in any event, I think Duck Hunt is superior.)

While this Howard lacks the satiric edge of Gerber’s writing, writer Chip Zdarsky’s work is still very funny, mixing Marvel jokes, pop culture references, and outstanding comic timing. Duck Hunt does follow the Gerber template of putting Howard into absurd situations and letting him react to them. In Duck Hunt, for instance, Howard just wants to return to Duckworld but has to deal with female clones of himself and Rocket Raccoon, all the people who try to capture him after he becomes a Living Nexus, a wannabe herald of Galactus, a woman who decides to hunt anthropomorphic animals because she wants to hunt the most dangerous game, and anthropomorphic animals are a legal gray area …

Howard handles all of it with his trademark puzzlement, disdain, and fear. His tattoo artist sidekick, Tara Tam, provides a layman’s view of his adventures, which — when it comes down to it — isn’t all that different from Howard’s point of view, but she is allowed to be confused in situations Howard finds tediously complicated.

Duck Hunt ranges through the Marvel Universe, from its cosmic bourns to the swamps around Citrusville, Fla., and New York. Zdarsky pulls in numerous characters, and I find it interesting which ones mesh with Howard’s comic ethos: the cosmic entities, strangely, as well as Dr. Strange (an old Defenders friend), Squirrel Girl, and the Wizard and Titania. The contrast between the most powerful of Marvel’s pantheon of villains and heroes (Galactus, Silver Surfer, and the Collector) and a tired duck never fails to be absurd, and Howard always works best as a character fighting against villains who aren’t the strongest adversaries, like the Wizard. (Usually, though, Howard villains are the seriously incompetent, like Dr. Bong.)

Not everyone Zdarsky puts into Duck Hunt works, though. I didn’t care for the appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who seem shoehorned into the plot; they aren’t very funny, and I’m not sold on their lineup (Thing, Shadowcat, and Flash Thompson-Venom on the same team?). Aunt May’s continued presence feels like a continuity error, but I’m willing to overlook it.

The two-part Squirrel Girl / Howard story that ends the book is a natural crossover. Squirrel Girl writer Ryan North and Zdarsky work flawlessly together, even to the point of writing dialogues in Squirrel Girl’s trademark page-bottom asides. The two issues are hilarious, with Squirrel Girl’s optimism and hypercompetence complementing Howard’s pessimism and … well, not quite competence. The villain’s concept — a cosplaying villain who has decided hunting sentient anthropomorphic characters, like Rocket Raccoon, Howard, and Beast, is her life’s goal — is terrific, although I question the wisdom of making her a southern belle named Shannon Sugarbaker. (I don’t need implied crossovers between the Marvel Universe and Designing Women.) I also have trouble with Kraven’s characterization in the crossover; Kraven is easily cowed by Shannon in the story, and even though he regains some of his élan in the final issue, it still feels weird.

Kra-Van!On the other hand, the crossover features Kraven’s airbrushed Kra-Van, and its presence forgives a lot of sins.

Artist Joe Quinones didn’t create the Kra-Van — that was Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson — but he is a solid complement for Zdarsky’s writing. Drawing Howard the Duck calls for a wide range; the book has both action and humor, and Howard himself needs a lot of subtlety of expression, which isn’t easy on a duck’s face. Quinones succeeds admirably, though. He has a tight line and he doesn’t exaggerate much, which I think is to the title’s advantage: the situations Howard gets into are absurd enough without the need for cartoon-y elements trying to ratchet up the silliness. Howard always has to be able to have a claim to keeping his dignity, and putting him in a story that turns him into a caricature robs him of that. The relatively realistic art makes Quinones sort of the book’s straight man, a role that is often underappreciated. Still, Quinones slips his own in-jokes into the story; for instance, Quinones places Soos from Gravity Falls into the book as an ignorant yokel. (Quinones changes the question mark on Soos’s shirt to an exclamation mark, but it’s definitely him.)

That being said, Duck Hunt is not all wacky adventures and jokes — and I mean that in a good way. I was genuinely moved by issue #2, drawn by guest artist Veronica Fish, which tells the life story of Linda (Howard’s female clone) and Shocket (Rocket’s female clone). It’s a tribute to Fish’s and Zdarsky’s skills that they could make me care about the distaff knockoffs of two second-tier characters within the space of a single issue, but it happens, and it doesn’t feel cheap. I never need to see the two again, but they work in this story.

As a side note, Duck Hunt does not have the three back-up Howard / Gwenpool stories that originally ran in Howard the Duck #1-3. As much as I might have appreciated the entirety of #1-3 being reprinted, I understand the space crunch the book was under: the book is seven issues long, and the Gwenpool stories would have added another issue’s worth of pages. But if they reduced the number of issues included, they would have had to remove the entire Howard / Squirrel Girl crossover. The lead Howard stories were full-length, anyway, so it’s not like readers are getting cheated.

On the other hand, cutting the book short after #5 would have left a heck of a cliffhanger … although one that wouldn’t be picked up again until the fourth story of the next trade. I suppose sometimes perfect choices are impossible.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend Howard the Duck to everyone, even those who don’t like the character. This Howard, although funny, is nothing like Gerber’s acerbic takes on ‘70s culture; this book is just trying to be funny — and succeeding.

Rating: Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Half Howard the Duck symbol (4.5 of 5)

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24 June 2016

Silk, v. 1: Sinister

Collects: Silk #1-6, story from Amazing Spider-Man v. 4 #1 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785199571

What is this?: Silk goes undercover for SHIELD inside Black Cat’s organization as the Black Cat accumulates technology and battles against Goblin Nation while she also works for the Fact Channel and looks for her parents.

The culprits: Writer Robbie Thompson and artists Stacey Lee, Tana Ford, and Veronica Fish

I’ve been trying to write this review for a few weeks now, and I just haven’t been able to put my thoughts down. But now that I’ve published my review for Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power, I feel I have to review the latest title from the other female-led new-character series that came out of Spider-verse: Silk, v. 1: Sinister.

The review hasn’t been hard for me to write because I don’t know what I thought of the book. I enjoyed Sinster, just as I enjoyed the first volume of Silk (confusingly numbered v. 0). Silk is a solid series; it’s a series I’ll continue to read, although I’m not sure I’ll be excited about it.

Silk, v. 1: Sinister coverSilk … I don’t know. Silk has lost its new car smell, but it’s reliable and can still surprise me at times . I expect to have Silk for a long time, and I expect to remain satisfied by it. But it’s a little disconcerting how quickly how quickly it’s gone from invigorating to a solid performer.

Sinister picks up eight months after v. 0. I was concerned Silk would abandon some of the changes made at the end of The Life and Times of Cindy Moon because of Secret Wars, but I needn’t have worried. Cindy Moon has been promoted at the Fact Channel, where she works for the gruff-but-caring J. Jonah Jameson. Cindy is still looking for her parents, but she has found her brother, who’s seeking treatment after his memory loss. Cindy’s heroic identity, Silk, appears to be working for crime boss Black Cat, but that is revealed (in the first issue, so no real spoilers) to be an undercover gig for SHIELD. Since Cindy’s brother was previously affiliated with Goblin Nation, Silk has a vendetta against the green-faced tribe of kids and young punks.

Writer Robbie Thompson has established a status quo that is nearly ideal — a classic Spider-Man status quo without being obvious about it. The balance between Cindy’s personal life and work life and between Silk’s heroism and her selfish desires are fascinating. Cindy is obviously trying to fit too much into her life, but that’s what heroes do, right? And Thompson does as good job of showing that Cindy’s suffering from her attempts to run in four different ways at once; her behavior, her friends’ reactions, and her sessions with her psychiatrist all show someone who is beginning to fray.

The supporting cast is excellent, with Cindy’s work friends serving as a nice counterweight to Silk’s allies and rivals. Jameson’s faith in Silk is as touching as it is surprising. Peter Parker returns to offer his ten cents of advice; a wise choice, as Peter’s appearance serves to link the book’s continuity to the pre-Secret Wars stories and shows why Peter probably won’t be showing up very often going forward. Thompson even uses Killer Shrike, who works for Black Cat. Killer Shrike! Silk also has a mystery ally, Spectro (named only in the sketches at the back of the book), who seems primed to be the Angel to Cindy’s Buffy.

I’m not sure about Spectro; he’s mysterious without having a character. I’m really not sure about using Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew), though. Jessica presents herself as a mentor figure to Silk — they have regular brunches — but Cindy already has more effective adults she can work out her issues with: Mockingbird, who is her SHIELD partner / handler, and her psychiatrist. My resistance to Jessica’s presence may be because the two characters met in the Spider-Verse crossover, and I’m opposed to anything that reminds me of that crossover. It may also be because Jessica serves as mentor to Spider-Gwen, and I think Silk and Spider-Gwen should be differentiated as much as possible. Mostly, though, it’s the redundancy that bothers me.

I like Silk being a superhero who visits a psychiatrist, and every panel with Jessica is one that can’t be used on one of Cindy’s sessions with Dr. Sinclair. In an era in which thought bubbles and narrative text boxes have gone out of style, it’s nice that Thompson has given Cindy someone to whom she can admit her darker thoughts, her true thoughts, without fear of repercussions. (Well, there could be repercussions, but Cindy doesn’t think there will be.) That doesn’t mean she blurts out what she thinks to Dr. Sinclair; she’s still concerned about what her feelings say about her true character, as anyone would be.

I’m not convinced by Black Cat’s full transformation to ultra crime boss. Thompson has set her up as a major crime lord, one who has the resources to create an antidote to the Goblin serum. Even given that Cat has been back to being a criminal for maybe a year, Marvel time, that’s not really believable. The Goblin serum is a hard nut to crack; Spider-Man had a great deal of difficulty doing that. But Black Cat’s scientists — seen only on one page — manage to not only come up with a cure with no side effects but to aerosolize it. I’m not sure how Black Cat, a character who was a lone operator for so long, gets to build an organization like that. I can see her intimidating a small crew, but a large operation … ? Well, I suppose this is a small quibble, and my skepticism might be unfounded. After all, a year seems like a short time to build what Black Cat has, but it’s a long time in the Marvel Universe.

I love Stacey Lee’s art, and I’m sad she doesn’t do more than the first issue (plus the story from ASM). Lee’s art is fluid and clear; she has no trouble making Cindy stereotypically cute while making the Goblin Nation thugs creepy. She even (almost) makes Mockingbird’s mask look normal, which is something that Giuseppe Camuncoli completely failed to do in Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1. What causes a goblin glider to fail during Silk’s battle with Goblin Nation could be clearer, though.

Tana Ford’s art doesn’t match the tone Lee established in #1 and in Life and Times. Everyone Ford draws looks disheveled; everything feels unpolished and rough. Her wobbly faces look like their features are all going to start rolling away in opposite directions. (Also, Ford’s Mockingbird at the beginning of #6 looks incredibly like Songbird from Thunderbolts, which caused me to do a double-take.) Ford’s style could work for a different title, but Lee has established Silk’s look as the complete opposite. If I knew Ford was taking the title over full-time, I could get used to that — I’d have to, I suppose — but Ford draws only three issues (#2-3 and #6). Issues #4 and 5 are drawn by Veronica Fish, whose style fits wonderfully with Lee’s.

Silk is a title with a lot to like, although I admit I have to sit down and make myself write my thoughts out for me to really see it all. I have a feeling my enthusiasm for each future volumes will have a lot to do with who the artist is and how much the stories involve other Spider-women.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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18 June 2016

Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Responsibility

Collects: Spider-Gwen v. 2 #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199595

What is this?: Gwen fights Lizards and learns what has happened to Peter’s Lizard serum; ol’ pal Harry Osborn returns, seeking revenge for Peter’s death.

The culprits: Writer Jason Latour and artists Robbi Rodriguez and Chris Visions

I didn’t like the first Spider-Gwen book, Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted?, but I wanted to give the next book a chance to see if the series improved. Unfortunately, Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power isn’t an improvement.

Given how well received the series is, though, I had to figure out: what is it that made me dislike the series so much?

Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power coverThe easy answer is still the color palette. I find Spider-Gwen a series that’s physically hard to look at: the pinks, purples, and greens that dominate the book are unpleasant on the eyes. I’m not sure what colorist Rico Renzi is going for in the book. Is he using the colors usually associated with villains to show us this is a world gone wrong? Is he trying to undermine Gwen’s heroism with villain colors? Or is this a battered world, and the shades of bruised flesh are the only hues that can properly portray it?

The story itself doesn’t give an indication of which of those is correct. Instead, writer Jason Latour gives us a world and a hero who are enigmas.

And that’s my main problem. The hook for Spider-Gwen is a classic What If? hook: What if the radioactive spider had bitten Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker? What would be different then? Apparently, the answer is, “The world would have a Spider-Woman instead of a Spider-Man.” Not much else changes, and I understand how for some people this is enough. The reasons may vary from un-refrigerating Gwen Stacy to increasing the presence of women heroes in comics to merely wanting a beginning-of-career Spider-Man-type book or something else I haven’t thought of and could never think of, because liking is a much more complicated and yet simple (private) emotion that we generally believe.

And that’s fine. It’s more than fine, in fact. I hope Spider-Gwen lasts as long as its fans want it to. But what I’ve seen in two trade paperbacks (covering about twelve issues) is not enough to retain my interest.

Everything feels like a mere reshuffling of continuity; the elements of Spider-Man are just redealt, with Peter and Gwen switching spots. Spider-Woman is a vigilante hero whose secret identity jeopardizes her only guardian, whom she leans on for moral guidance and emotional support. She runs into the same villains Spider-Man did: the Vulture, Kingpin, and Frank Castle in the previous book, the Lizard and Green Goblin in this one. Harry Osborn’s grief leads him to become the Green Goblin. Jean DeWolff and George Stacy are still cops. (Ben Grimm is one as well, which … sure, OK, that’s a little different.) Even the trade’s title is there to remind readers of Spider-Man.

Sure, Gwen has her drumming, although she doesn’t do that in this book; that sets her apart from Peter, who was too busy for hobbies. But that raises questions about what she’s doing with her time. She’s not in school, and her job lasts a negative amount of time.

What has changed in Spider-Woman’s world? Not much. Tony Stark never gave up his warmongering, and he has a coffee franchise called Starkbucks, which is not a good name at all. (It just emphasizes the company is a rich man getting richer, whereas the coffee company was at least named for the chief mate who tried to avert the Pequod’s disastrous end in Moby Dick.) Frank Castle is a cop instead of the Punisher. Captain America is a black woman, but she still gained her powers during World War II, missed most of the intervening time, and reports to a one-eyed spymaster she served with during World War II. The Kingpin is Matt Murdock instead of Wilson Fisk, although that might be because Fisk is in prison. (In #5, Latour and artist Chris Vision even refer to the recent Mark Waid / Chris Samnee run by giving Murdock a “I’m not the Kingpin” shirt, which recalls Murdock’s “I’m not Daredevil” shirt in Waid / Samnee’s run. I’m not against references to other stories; hell, I love them, and celebrate them. But the story making the allusions has to differentiate itself from those stories somehow.)

The only new character is Bodega Bandit, a hold-up man who looks like the Hamburglar. Well, I suppose Gwen traversing universes to talk to her mentor, the main Marvel Universe’s Spider-Woman, is different as well, but I try to block out anything that refers to Spider-Verse, a crossover I hated. Also, “dimensional travel” doesn’t really fit in with the rest of Spider-Gwen, which is a book about a street-level crimefighter who plays in a band and hangs out with friends when she’s not web-slinging.

The new Captain America has the most worrying implications. I admit: a black, female Captain America is a nice twist, and it can work. But we never see the world around this character change. Would America have accepted a black, female supersoldier during World War II? I have my doubts. I also doubt an African-American woman would have been allowed to be a candidate for the role of Captain America, given that neither women nor African-Americans were allowed to serve with white men. I have even more doubts that a newsreel narrator would use the phrase “ready to fight for freedom at home, abroad” while describing her; the line is too close to the Double V campaign (“Double Victory — at Home, Abroad”) used by African-Americans during World War II. (The campaign wasn’t exactly popular among white folks, as you might imagine.) So this world must be different than ours — different, and at least in one facet, better. But we never see any evidence that it’s different in the book; most of the characters are still white. This is the same ol’ world.

The best parts of book are the mere glimpses of Gwen, Peter, and Harry before Peter dies. The dynamic is something we haven’t seen before, and Peter’s bitterness, his desire to be more than he is, is heartbreaking. Harry’s acceptance of who he is is encouraging, even if it’s undermined by his future actions. But those interactions take up less than four of the book’s 136 pages.

What is the timeline for this book, anyway? The Spider-Woman task force is geared up to search for Spider-Woman because of Peter’s death, which seems to be a recent event. But Harry Osborn, who was there the night of Peter’s death, has been gone for two years. I’m beginning to think George Stacy was replaced as head of the task force because he’s not very good at his job. And whether it’s been weeks or years, Gwen has been completely unable to protect her secret identity, which means someone should be ending up dead or arrested soon.

I haven’t talked about the plot of Greater Power, which mostly involves further use of the serum that turned Peter into the Lizard, or the art, which is by Robbi Rodriguez (#1-4 and 6) and Chris Visions (#5). I didn't like either of them, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that after two trades, it’s clear Spider-Gwen has the legs of the average What If? story: entertaining (at least for a while) if you buy into the continuity tweak, but quickly becoming dull if you don’t have an attachment to that change. Like Mutant X, for those of you who remember it, but with more coherence.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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10 June 2016

Midnighter, v. 1: Out

Collects: Midnighter #1-7 and Convergence: Nightwing / Oracle #2 (2015-6)

Released: February 2016 (DC)

Format: 160 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401259785

What is this?: Midnighter, the gay Batman, has split up from his lover and is trying to find himself. Unfortunately, someone has stolen a bunch of superweapons, and Midnighter has to find them and the culprit.

The culprits: Writer Steve Orlando and artists Aco, Stephen Mooney, and Alec Morgan

I really wanted to be able to recommend Midnighter, v. 1: Out, but I just can’t do it.

Before I read Out, all I knew about Midnighter is that he was, essentially, a gay Batman, originally from the Wildstorm Universe, whose lover was Apollo, a gay Superman. In Out, I quickly learned that second part is out-of-date, as Midnighter dates a string of men. In the second story, I found out Midnighter has a computer in his brain that allows him to see all possible outcomes of a fight, which allows him to choose the path that will lead to victory.

Midnighter, v. 1: Out coverBy the end, other than the reason Midnighter and Apollo broke up, that’s still all I know about Midnighter.

Out’s plot kicks off (in the book’s second story) with the theft of a super-arsenal from the Gardener, who also created Midnighter. Between dates, Midnighter follows the trail of the weapons, trying to find the thief. Writer Steve Orlando and penciler Aco (#1, #3, #6-7, and the story from Convergence) are trying to tell a complex, nuanced story, but their attempts come across as needlessly complex rather than interesting.

The text is littered with plenty of Warren Ellis sci-fi items, which I’m guessing is a relic of Ellis’s role in co-creating the Authority and Midnighter. Some of these terms and descriptions don’t have any logic behind them; for instance, a terrorist group from Modora (which I’m assuming is a country and not an insurance conglomerate or medical NGO) has blasters that kill people with their own anger. The rest could mean anything; the Gardener threatens her attacker with “doubt darts” and “manticore drones,” and items taken from her include the “six killing sounds,” which are rendered in Chinese, and “Holt-Griffin skin,” which is “invisible to technology.” Such vague, sci-fi items are meant to intrigue, but they annoy me instead. If a writer is going to use them, though, he needs to double down and make the text thick with them. Instead, they pop up as the next item to check off on Midnighter’s quest, and that’s not enough to justify their use.

Aco’s style makes it easy to figure out which stories are his and which are fill-ins: all of Aco’s issues have fiddly little blow-up boxes littering the page. The boxes don’t help the reader understand what’s going on, and their tiny size doesn’t actually magnify anything, but they are all over the place, so readers will have to get used to them. Aco’s art is tight and almost admirably miniaturized, but his ability to get a lot of art on a page doesn’t increase the amount of information that is conveyed, as Midnighter’s super-brain allows him to do things the art has trouble showing.

Admittedly, Aco isn’t aided by Orlando’s occasional forays into non-linear storytelling — the transition from #2 to #3, which goes from “now” to “hours earlier” to “later” to “back to now” ten pages later, is needlessly confusing and would be regardless of who was drawing #3. The switch from Alec Morgan (#2) to Aco doesn’t help things, either.

(Also: Would it kill DC to label each issue? I mean, even leaving a small number in one corner of the cover art would help me immensely; it also would have let me understand why what looked like Midnighter #1 was so short. It turns out the story was actually Convergence: Nightwing / Oracle #2, which is listed as part of the contents in the indicia’s tiny print but not on the cover.)

Confusing storytelling and high-sounding but disappointing Macguffins can be forgiven if the character at the center of the story is interesting. Unfortunately, we barely know him. What is it that drives Midnighter? He tells Apollo he’s leaving their relationship to find out who he is, but the reader never discovers what that is, other than a Batman copy with a computer in his brain. What other abilities does he have? He can teleport. Maybe he has superstrength? Maybe not. Maybe he’s just Batman with a fight computer in a brain but fewer detective skills.

Midnighter says he enjoys employing violence against bad people, and he specifically chooses the villains in this book because they robbed his … mentor? of a cache of superweapons. He seems to be irritated by criminals more than outraged. He has a small coterie of friends and a hangout; is this different than his status quo when he was dating Apollo? Midnighter seems to lack complexity; he’s a blank slate that likes to punch people.

What a lot of heterosexual men mean when they leave a relationship to “find themselves” is that they want to sleep with a lot of different women. Midnighter certainly succeeds in the homosexual version of that, sleeping with numerous men in Out. Morally, I don’t have any problem with that, but I am unconvinced that Midnighter’s dating pattern is a wise idea, from a security standpoint — and as it turns out, I’m right. It’s hard to respect Midnighter’s intelligence by the end … or maybe this is just another example of a man thinking too much with his little brain rather than the one in his skull.

The choice of the villain in Out is perfect: Prometheus, a villain who can download (and use) the knowledge and fighting skills of the world’s greatest martial artists. The battle between someone with these skills and someone who can calculate the future, like Midnighter, should be epic, as much a chess match as a physical encounter. Instead, Aco and Orlando give readers a straight slugfest, with two fighters trading bloody punches. The most innovative move shown is Midnighter smacking Prometheus with a poker. What a waste.

Dick Grayson, the original Robin and Nightwing who is now a secret agent, guest stars in #4 and 5. Contrasting Midnighter and Batman would be interesting, but other than Midnighter’s crack that Grayson must be “used to taking orders from a man in black,” the comparisons are all in the reader’s mind. Grayson seems almost to be humoring the ersatz Dark Knight by accompanying Midnighter on his mission; Midnighter handcuffs himself to Grayson because he claims a fight is boring him, but I find it hard to believe the protégée of Batman would remain handcuffed to Midnighter during a fight for any reason other than pity.

I enjoyed a few elements of Out. Midnighter’s glee at discovering he would be fighting Multiplex, a criminal who makes copies of himself, because it would give him so many bodies to beat up was a great character moment, and it’s amusing as well. The same goes for his approval of a fake vampire using insects and rats to fight him (“The vermin thing. Old school. Your respect for obscene tradition does not go unnoticed”). Midnighter’s final words to Apollo in their last argument — “I already know how this fight ends” — echoes his boasting from his physical fights. Those touches show up too seldom to save the book, though.

I have some sympathy with the assertion that a sex-positive comic book has value in and of itself; I also understand the idea that it’s good to show a gay hero who actually dates multiple men. And I admire that the creators of Out had ambitions; aiming high and missing is often better than aiming low and connecting. But the book itself isn’t interesting, and its misses aren’t that entertaining.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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03 June 2016

Batgirl, v. 1: Silent Knight

Collects: Batgirl #1-12, Annual #1 (2000-1)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 328 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785199571

What is this?: Coming out of No Man’s Land, a new Batgirl, able to predict the movement of others, joins Batman’s fight against crime.

The culprits: Writers Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson and artist Damion Scott (and others)

My interest in the Batman titles waxes and wanes, but I rarely read the second-tier Bat books. For some reason, I made an exception with Batgirl, v. 1: Silent Night, and I’m glad I did.

The Batgirl in this book is Cassandra Cain, a character who debuted in 1999’s No Man’s Land event. Cassandra is the daughter of assassin David Cain, who trained her to fight from nearly birth but neglected language of any kind; as a consequence, the language centers of Cassandra’s brain were entirely dedicated to interpreting body language, which allows her to foresee her opponents’ moves but leaves her with little language ability.

Batgirl coverIn Silent Knight, Batgirl doesn’t have a ready-made archenemy, nor does she acquire one. She beats up on Gotham’s mooks and killers, usually experiencing little trouble. She’s not perfect, however; sometimes, she is injured while fighting crime, and sometimes people she wants to save die.

The lack of an overarching story is for the best, really, as it allows the story to concentrate on Cassandra herself, who is more interesting than a recurring supervillains. The book’s plot is driven by Cassandra’s personal evolution, with Cassandra having to fit into the Bat-family while she changes as a person. Her identity is wrapped up in her fighting ability, and anything that threatens her greatness at that has to be overcome at any cost. She has lived a life insulated from so many things that normal people take for granted; her only real human contact has been the father who expressed his feelings for her through violence. Because of this, she responds to male authority figures, obeying Batman’s commands and even showing concern for him.

The Batman / Batgirl relationship is touching in its way, but it’s also disturbing, given Cassandra’s relationship with her father. Cassandra rejected Cain long before the series, just after he sent her on her first assassination, but she still has feelings for the man who forced her to become a fighting machine. Batman is absurdly concerned that Cassandra might have killed a man when she was a little girl — she wasn’t legally or morally culpable, and she’s certainly repented — and as her surrogate father, he beats the tar out of her biological father because Cain “made her like us.”

(I have to admit: I like Cain, even though he’s despicable. He taunts Batman over his inability to accept Cassandra’s origins, and even hobbled by injuries, he’s resourceful and hard to defeat. His lingering affection over Cassandra — or what he created — is a nice Achilles heel for him as well.)

Cassandra lives with Oracle (Barbara Gordon), the first Batgirl, but despite sharing living space and a codename, Cassandra doesn’t show Barbara the sort of tenderness she does Batman. I’m not sure why this is. The generation gap isn't to blame, since Cassandra doesn’t interact with anyone her age. Is Cassandra rejecting the emotions Barbara exudes when she offers Cassandra help? Or does Barbara’s paralysis distance and reliance on communication her from someone who defines herself by motion? I think it has more to do with the latter than the former, but it’s hard to say.

Silent Knight is a great value: thirteen issues, one of them an annual, for $20. DC has always been better at getting older series like Batgirl reprinted for a reasonable price, but that has sometimes come at the cost of the quality of the physical book. Silent Knight has a higher quality paper and better binding than previous DC offerings, like the reprint of Chase from four years ago. A Marvel trade of this size … well, because I like picking on it, Cage: Second Chances, v. 1 is eight pages shorter and costs $15 more. Also: It’s filled with reprints of issues of Cage, so Silent Knight could have been 300 blank pages and still come out ahead.

On the other hand, the book does have some dead space. The issue that’s part of the Officer Down crossover (#11) feels like it’s acknowledging the event while giving Cassandra something to do with no real consequences; because it doesn’t engage with Barbara’s connection to Commissioner Gordon other than to mention it, the issue seems like a waste. The annual at the end of Silent Knight is filler — Batman and Batgirl in India — although it does show Cassandra watching a movie for the first time.

I’m not overly thrilled about the appearance of Lady Shiva either, but that’s mostly because she and Cassandra are hinted to have a connection because their skin colors are near each other on the color wheel and they have a similar ability. I’m not sure what my feelings will be as their connection is explored, though.

Damion Scott’s art is very, very ‘90s, even though these issues were coming out at the beginning of the 2000s. Scott’s work is sometimes described as being influenced by hip-hop and graffiti, which is fair, but comics readers who remember the ‘90s will see similarities to Joe Madureira’s work, full of thick lines and jutting angles. Scott is from the school of thought that a character’s mask should represent their emotions, so Batgirl’s (and Batman’s) mask have widened eyes, and the sewed-shut mouth of Batgirl’s costume widens and twists as necessary. (That sewed-shut mouth is delightfully creepy, I have to say.) I can’t say I am fond of Scott’s style, but it took no time before I became accustomed to it as the style of Batgirl, just as a quirky authorial voice often becomes part of the background — or even beloved — after you’ve been exposed to it long enough.

What never becomes part of the background is the way Batgirl is sexualized. When drawn in street clothes, Cassandra is a teenage girl of normal proportions, or as close as a comic-book female generally gets. As Batgirl … Batgirl is absurdly busty, and I can’t think of a reason why. Nothing about Cassandra in either persona justifies such objectification, and Scott’s depiction of Cassandra shows he understands normal female proportions. Is it a problem with the prominence of the costume’s logo? I dunno. Whatever the reason, it’s distracting.

Silent Knight is a solid superhero book that doesn’t rely on stunts or cheap traumas to shock readers. It develops a character with an interesting hook by putting her into situations readers are familiar with and seeing what happens. I liked this book so much, in fact, that I’m disappointed now that I didn’t preorder the second volume, To the Death. Guess I’ll have to pick it up after it comes out.

Rating: Batgirl symbol Batgirl symbol Batgirl symbol Batgirl symbol (4 of 5)

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27 May 2016

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man

Collects: Ant-Man #1-5 (2015)

Released: June 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785193876

What is this?: Ant-Man moves to Miami, following his ex-wife and daughter, and tries to set up his own security company.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer and artist Ramon Rosanas

I enjoyed writer Nick Spencer’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which followed the adventures of the new Sinister Six, led by Boomerang. (To get an idea of the group’s competence level, the Sinister SIx had only five members for the entire book.) When Spencer started writing Ant-Man with what promised to be a similar tone, I was eager to try it.

Then I lost track of the book and didn’t pick up a trade until the title morphed into Astonishing Ant-Man. I totally missed that Ant-Man gained an adjective after the latest Secret Wars. Comics!

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man coverAnyway, after I realized my mistake, I went out and bought Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man. The reviews were correct: Spencer gives Ant-Man the same sort of cheerfully oblivious voice that he gave Boomerang; each protagonist knows he’s seen as a joke, but he keeps smiling, sure that things will work out. The main difference is that Ant-Man has people who he could disappoint, such as his daughter Cassie, which raises the stakes and makes the trade paperback feel like it has been soaked in Ant-Man’s flop sweat.

I mean, I want to like Ant-Man and this book. It’s funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite Ant-Man’s powers and accomplishments, he’s a more down-to-earth character than most Marvel heroes, with his teenage daughter helping to keep him grounded. But it’s hard to like someone with such low self-esteem; he agrees with others’ assessment so often that he doesn’t matter much that the reader begins to believe it.

Ant-Man buys into everyone’s narrative that he has been a failure, which seems like it’s taking modesty much too far. I understand the mockery — I mean, he’s Ant-Man, and not even the original (but he is the best) — but no one, including Scott, seems to remember his successes. He was a real, bona fide Avenger. Before that, he helped install Avengers Mansion’s security system. He was a member of the Fantastic Four a couple of times, and the Fantastic Four is still the most exclusive superteam in the Marvel Universe. He devised and executed a plan that defeated Dr. Doom by delving more deeply into the nature of Pym Particles than anyone else. Before that, he returned from the dead. (OK, he only appeared to be dead. Still!)

And Scott uses his powers well in Second-Chance — he beats Tony Stark’s security, he uses his powers to save rent by living in a toy house, he prevents his daughter from rejecting a transplant, and he defeats a Nazi robot. A Nazi robot, for Byrne’s sake! But whenever anyone heaps abuse onto Scott, he takes it, even implicitly agrees with their assessments. (He doesn’t call Stark on Stark’s accusation that Scott can’t stick with one team for very long; Scott thinks about how much team-hopping Tony’s been doing, but you get the feeling Scott’s inferiority complex would stop him from actually saying it.) It’s infuriating, and at times it’s difficult to read about this sad sack.

Everyone but Cassie takes the opportunity to dump on Ant-Man. That’s understandable for most characters, who have little interest in the man, but it’s difficult when his ex-wife, Peggy, does it. Peggy’s not cartoonishly bad in her interactions with Scott, but she’s still inconsiderate at best and often much worse. She decides to move to Miami with Cassie, and from the narration, it seems that if Scott hadn’t decided to visit the day she packed up, she wouldn’t have told him his daughter was moving more than a thousand miles away. She denigrates Scott for being a loser and a super-hero, which feels contradictory; she thinks Scott’s superheroics will cause Cassie to get wrapped up in the machinations of supervillains, but if he’s a loser, who’s going to pay attention to him? Peggy wants Scott to be “normal,” and no one gets to demand that of another human being, even if they share a child’s visitation rights.

Spencer brings some interesting villains into the book. Grizzly, a strong guy in a bear suit, attacks Scott, but Scott ends up hiring Grizzly for his new security firm. Scott also hires Machinesmith, a robot with the consciousness of a former Mr. Fear, to help his security firm. As you probably guessed from the book’s vibe, these two are pathetic; Grizzly attacked Scott, not knowing Scott wasn’t the Ant-Man who defeated him, and Machinesmith was working as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties after his parole from prison. Fortunately, Spencer brings in the new Beetle from Superior Foes of Spider-Man, and she doesn’t lack for self-confidence.

Scott having no confidence in his accomplishments doesn’t mean that Spencer’s not aware of what Scott’s career. Spencer brings two of Ant-Man’s old rivals into the book: Taskmaster, whom Scott has fought alongside other heroes, and Darren Cross, whose kidnapping of a cardiac surgeon inspired Scott to become Ant-Man in the first place. Taskmaster is a great villain, and his sneering at Scott feels earned: he is out of Scott’s league when Scott hasn’t had a chance to prepare, and Taskmaster’s noseless face is great for conveying contempt. I’m less sure about resurrecting Cross, who died in his first appearance, but I suppose Scott needs an adversary, and Cross’s son’s exuberant pride in his own supervillainy is hilarious.

Ramon Rosanas’s art is nice. It’s simple, but it remains evocative. Rosanas manages to convey a lot of emotion from a guy who spends most of book in an ant helmet, which is impressive. Rosanas is able to keep conversation scenes from getting boring, which is vital, given how many conversation scenes Spencer writes. Rosanas knows how to draw battle scenes — mostly, as I’m not sure how Ant-Man foils the assassination attempt — and his pages are filled with nice character touches.

Unfortunately, Rosanas art is marred by the lettering — specifically the lettering of the book’s dialogue. The font is … well, I want to say “ugly,” but “distracting” is probably fairer. It bears a resemblance to Comic Sans, and no one wants that in a font. Pick a new style next time, letterer Travis Lanham.

In the end, what the book needs is more scenes with actual superheroics, the stranger the better. The book’s high point was when Ant-Man defeated the Nazi robot that spewed molten gold, and Scott’s sangfroid during the battle suggests he could handle weirder villains. Actually, the book improved greatly when Scott was actually in action; the rest of the time, when people made fun of this character I was supposed to care about, was uncomfortable.

Rating: Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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20 May 2016

I Hate Fairyland,v. 1: Madly Ever After

Collects: I Hate Fairyland #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781632156853

What is this?: A young girl kidnapped by Fairyland tries to find her home for 27 years, trapped physically at the same age and growing increasingly violent.

The culprit: Skottie Young

I don’t know that I’m the right audience for I Hate Fairyland, v. 1: Madly Ever After.

I mean, I thought I was. I Hate Fairyland features Gertrude, a woman in her mid-30s who has been trapped in Fairyland in a child’s unaging body for almost three decades. Unable to find the way out of Fairyland and into her own world again, Gertrude gleefully takes out her frustrations on the pastel-and-spun-sugar world around her. Unremitting violence against all those fairy-tale clichés seemed like something I would enjoy.

I Hate Fairyland coverAs it turns out, the violence gets boring. Writer / artist Skottie Young doesn’t skimp on the blood, bone, or gore as Gertrude destroys anthropomorphic heavenly bodies, anthropomorphic animals, and anthropomorphic plants. (I think she has it in for things that look or act human-like but aren’t.) For variety, she also kills some giants. Gertrude’s violence on the page is mostly perpetrated against those who can’t fight back. Perhaps that’s why the mayhem’s appeal begins to pall after an issue or two. Most of the big fights — the ones against opponents who can fight back — happen between books or off-panel. Some bits of violence don’t grow old, though; I enjoyed Gertrude’s deadly attacks against the book’s narrators, especially once the narrators started to understand the peril they were in.

For many people, Young’s art is going to be the appeal. Young’s work is hyper-cartoony, with expressions and violence amped up to 11. Nothing is too small for him to exaggerate. (Young’s work in I Hate Fairyland is an amusing counterpoint to all his variant covers for Marvel, in which he draws cute versions of characters.) There’s no doubt Young is an outstanding visual storyteller; his art is clear, and he draws admirably clear battle scenes.

So I can’t fault Young as an artist at all. On the other hand, I’m more interested in the story and jokes.

Much like with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer, though, I have my doubts about Young as a writer. Given that I Hate Fairyland is labeled a mature book, I wish Young had done more with Gertrude’s emotional traumas. As written, Gertrude is a shallow character mostly concerned with vengeance against a world she feels wronged her. Shallow characters are fine, if the book is entertaining other ways, but I think developing Gertrude’s character would have served the book much better.

Other than her heartbreaking introduction in #1 and a moment in #2, when it’s revealed Gertrude has the sexual urges of a woman her actual age rather than her body’s apparent age, not much is done with her longings to be normal. (Later in the issue, Gertrude gives her sidekick, Larry, a long list of things she misses from her world, but that list reads as an indictment of Fairyland.) Gertrude’s story is tragic, and I think I Hate Fairyland would be much funnier if that were exploited more than the straight mayhem.

Another concern the book does not address is whether Gertrude can’t find her way home because she is incompetent or because of her attitude. There’s a great deal of difference about how we feel toward Gertrude depending on that answer. If it’s the latter, Gertrude is somewhat justified in her hatred of Fairyland. If she’s stuck in Fairyland because she can’t follow directions or figure out riddles — and that’s the way the text leans ever-so-slightly — then she’s just a violent boob, and her suffering is something she’s earned.

Certainly some of the page space could be repurposed to develop Gertrude more. A running subplot involves Queen Cloudia trying to get rid of Gertrude, who’s making a mess of her Fairyland; since Cloudia is a ho-hum villain, trimming some of those pages would improve the book. Also, Young spends eight pages on a gag where Larry lives an entire life — building a house, getting married, having kids, then getting divorced — while Gertrude is unconscious. It’s not a bad joke, but the amount of time that actually passes is unclear, and certain parts of the gag don’t land (why does Gertrude grow a beard while unconscious? why does Larry’s wife go from happy to angrily leaving him between panels?). I think those pages could have better been used elsewhere.

One joke that does not disappoint is the appearance of Happy, a girl Queen Cloudia brings to Fairyland in issue #4 to find the way out of Fairyland before Gertrude can. (Under the laws of Fairyland, this will allow Cloudia to attack Gertrude openly.) Happy is unremittingly cheerful, and her adventures show both the sickeningly sweet and childishly kind quests Gertrude is homicidally reacting against and also the way the quests should have been approached in the first place: with patience, compassion, and with childlike wonder.

After encountering Happy’s rainbows and cheerfulness, Gertrude decides she has to up her game, which is an argument that Happy (or another competent antagonist) should have appeared earlier in the book. This prompts Gertrude to approach one of the Seven Dooms and ask for his power to confront Happy. The tests he puts Gertrude through aren’t great, but what comes out of it is very satisfying.

Other than Happy and smashing the narrators, the book’s humor is hit and miss. Frequently, the characters substitute “cute” words for obscenities, but the results are more annoying than funny: “muffin-fluffer,” “hug off,” and “plush” are clunky rather than clever curse words. The violence stops amusing after the first issue or so. On the other hand, a few jokes, like Happy’s entire existence and a series of dialogue written as “blah blah blah” (she’s actually saying “blah blah blah,” not just running her mouth), are genuinely funny.

If you’re a fan of Young, you know you want this. If you are undecided about him, I’m torn over whether to recommend the book. On one hand, the plotting and pacing is mediocre, and the humor isn’t strong enough to make up for that. On the other, the book really picks up at the end, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. It’s possible Young is finding his groove, which means the next volume might be an improvement, and the experience of reading v. 1 could be improved by what comes after.

For the moment, though, I’m sticking with a dead-center, neither-approve-or-disapprove rating.

Rating: I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol (3 of 5)

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14 May 2016

Giant Days, v. 1

Collects: Giant Days #1-4 (2015)

Released: November 2015 (Boom! Box)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781608867899

What is this?: Esther, Susan, and Daisy deal with their first semester of college, and all its attendant problems: boys, the flu, boys, idiot university administrators, idiot boys, and girls.

The culprits: Written by John Allison and drawn by Lissa Treiman

I’ve followed John Allison’s web comics since the beginning of the century: through most of Bobbins, all of Scary Go Round, and everything to date of Bad Machinery. (Allison admits the weight of the comics he’s put out over 18 years is a bit daunting, so he wrote out a chronology / background of his universe of strips.) I’m a big fan of his strips, which have evolved away from strict joke-a-day comics and into more structured, long-term storylines that manage to combine humor, drama, and well-drawn characters. I can’t think of a webcomic writer I’ve followed as long as Allison.

I’m not trying to present myself as an uber-fan of Allison’s, although I admit to buying t-shirts and dish towels from Allison’s Topatco store, if that tells you something. I’m admitting all this to state my biases before I say Giant Days, v. 1, by Allison and Lissa Treiman is one of the best trade paperbacks I’ve read in ages. It is consistently funny, occasionally touching, and always entertaining.

Giant Days, v. 1 coverIt’s not necessary to have read any of Allison’s work to understand what’s going on in Giant Days. Allison introduces the reader quickly and efficiently to Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooten, who have met as freshmen at a British university and have become fast friends. (Their earlier adventures, mentioned on page 2 of issue #1, were released as webcomics on Allison’s site, but they seem to have disappeared online. You can buy them at Allison’s Topatco store, though.) Daisy is home-schooled and naïve, quite fond of her grandmother; Susan is pre-med and determinedly practical. Esther, a featured character in Scary Go Round, is a pale Goth surrounded by a drama field.

I love all the characters in Giant Days. Do I like them so much because I’ve read them before? I dunno. Other than Esther, though, I haven’t read many stories featuring htem. I identify with the mousy Daisy and logical Susan; I can’t help being entranced by the spectacle that is Dark Esther, even if I’m still miffed she cheated on The Boy between Scary Go Round and Giant Days. I sympathize with McGraw, a former friend of Susan’s who rejected her romantic advances. I kinda sympathize with Ed Gemmell, who pines for Esther, but Esther is so out of Ed’s league his head would probably explode if she ever paid him the kind of attention he desires. (That’s not a slight on Ed; remember, Esther has that drama field around her.)

For those who have read Scary Go Round, Giant Days is much more grounded. SGR had plotlines that included bringing a cast member back from the dead, first as a zombie, then fully resurrected as a normal human; that cast member’s sister was transformed into a six-foot Amazon by spoiled off-brand Pepto-Bismol, then ensnared with a magic spell by a villainous headmaster and sent to hell by a different spell that wiped them both from everyone’s memory. Giant Days is a straightforward story of college life, although the stories are exaggerated in the way that all comedies are.

The biggest difference from Allison’s online work is that he isn’t providing the art. Instead, Treiman draws Allison’s creations, and the result is weird — an outstanding weird, but weird nonetheless. Treiman is a great artist, with a beautiful, fluid style and a great comic touch. Her art is vastly different than Allison’s, taking Allison’s character designs, then making the cast her own. She also has a great sense of when to exaggerate features and reactions, always going far enough but never so far that the characters seem to belong in a cartoon.

Allison’s work as a daily comic strip writer shows here. His later two webcomics have had long arcs while maintaining a steady stream of humor, and he adapts that approach to individual comic issues. Each issue is a complete story, with enough loose ends and character work to lead into the next issue, but Allison always remembers to be funny. The jokes are earned, never cheap jokes put into the mouth of a character who wouldn’t say it.

My only complaint is the ending of #3. Even by Giant Days’ / Allison-verse’s logic, I don’t think maternal displeasure has much effect on the kind of bros who objectify women. I admit, the bros’ comeuppance is welcome, but any sort of retribution they receive would be pleasing. Vengeance the protagonists participated in would have been even more satisfying.

My recommendation is to read / buy / steal / demand Giant Days. I feel remiss that I haven’t recommended it earlier, but, well — I blame my retailer, and he probably blames Diamond. I ordered it in January, and after four months of not getting the book, I took matters into my own hands and bought it from Amazon. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go get Giant Days now.

Rating: Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol (5 of 5)

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