Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
In which Bill steals Burgas’ bit whilst he’s out of town.
A schlemihl is a schlemihl. What can you “make” out of one? What can one “make” out of himself? You reach a point, and Profane knew he’d reached it, where you know how much you can and cannot do. But every now and then he got attacks of acute optimism. (Thomas Pynchon, V)
Action Comics #900 by Paul Cornell, Pete Woods, Jesus Merino, and about nine hundred special guests, including Elton John, David and Victoria Beckham, and… oh, hold on, wrong list. $5.99, 96 pgs, FC, DC.
I like Paul Cornell a lot. His name appears on some great Doctor Who episodes, his Captain Britain & MI:13 series for Marvel was another excellent series nobody except internet critics bought, and his recent Knight & Squire series was a lot of fun. When he came on at what seemed like the last minute to write Action Comics– especially an Action Comics that didn’t even have Superman in it– well, he seemed headed for trouble. Thankfully, that trouble didn’t arise, as Cornell turned the title into a great character study of Lex Luthor masquerading as a tour of the villainous side of the DC Universe. Add in Robo-Lois, a great new character find, and a dude who Pete Woods was totally drawing to look like fellow Who alum David Tennant, and you had a fun comic. Unfortunately, the 11-part epic started losing me by the end, as I had trouble keeping up with just what the hell was going on.
Some good moments crop up in this issue’s 51-page lead story, and almost all of those moments are Lex Luthor moments. I’m actually going to miss Lex as the protagonist of the story now that the arc has wrapped up. Luthor attained godlike power in #899, and here he decides to use it to get his ultimate revenge on Superman. After ten issues of Lex being incredibly confident and in control, we see how he completely loses his shit when Superman is around, because Big Blue is seemingly the only person in the universe who brings out Lex’s inferiority complex. Around anyone else, Luthor is supreme, but around Superman, he’s just an angry bald guy. Lex must choose between achieving his full potential and bringing infinite happiness to the universe, or killing Superman. Guess which one he goes for? Pete Woods provides most of the art on the Luthor sequence, with appearances by some special guests, and his is the best art in the book, looking slick and smooth. Shame it’s his last issue on the title.
Sadly, Cornell is also saddled with including another chapter in the ongoing Doomsday storyline that has snaked through various other Super-titles to this point. I’m afraid it’s just not interesting at all, and feels completely shoehorned in. Jesus Merino’s art style only adds to the musky aroma of 90s nostalgia this plotline exudes. I’m hoping Cornell can redeem the storyline as he takes it over in the pages of Action.
As for the supplemental material, we’re given an awful lot of back-up strips that feel more like unfinished vignettes than actual stories. Paul Dini and RB Silva throw some good ideas at us, but three pages isn’t a suitable length to arrive at any sort of earned conclusion. Its final line is used again at the end of Richard Donner, Derek Hoffman, and Matt Camp’s “story,” which immediately feels empty and repetitive, though it doesn’t help that Donner/Hoffman/Camp’s “screenplay with storyboard sketches” format feels less like a special feature and more like half an ass. Ryan Sook’s art is very pretty in his ten-pager written by Damon Lindelof, but a ten-pager is not the place for decompression and curt dialogue; it feels like a scene from a Raymond Carver story, but it doesn’t have the space to gel. Then there’s David Goyer and Miguel Sepulveda’s controversial back-up story, which has good intentions but comes off heavy-handed. There’s potential there, but a throwaway back-up strip is not the place for this story idea, and it will almost surely be swept under the rug, unless DC decides to play to the controversy and launch a full-fledged arc with it.
All in all, the gems found in Cornell’s story isn’t enough to overpower the mediocrity and half-formed nature of the rest of the package. Sorry, gents! (Lots and lots of pages for the price, however, which is always good to see.)
One totally Airwolf panel:
(The third issue is already out, and I’ve only just read the second one! I know, I know.) I have to be careful when I write about Axe Cop– mostly because I want to make sure I don’t repeat myself. It’s hard to do, especially when the webcomic-turned-print-comic by a cool dude and his cooler little brother has been so consistently excellent, and so sure of its tone.
I know guys like Greg Burgas and Graeme McMillan are too cool for Axe Cop, thinking it’s too showy, or, in Graeme’s case, that it can only be enjoyed ironically. My love for Axe Cop is genuine– there is no hipster irony in play at all, because the comic itself is so refreshingly sincere in its dreamlike ridiculousness. I’m sure many of us wrote and drew our own comics when we were very young, before we had a proper grasp of things like plot, characterization, or the English language; I know I did. Axe Cop reminds me of those wacky comics I made as a kid, but– here’s the important bit– it looks like how I pictured those stories in my head, not how they ended up scrawled on yellowing paper. Older brother Ethan’s gorgeously detailed, realistic depictions of fiery baseball-induced death or asphyxiated space aliens infuse Malachai’s amazing ideas with the production values that usually only exist in a kid’s imagination. Here, it’s all on the page.
Is it nostalgia? Maybe, but I think it’s a new kind of nostalgia. Yes, it reminds me of the comics I made as a kid. Yes, my dad was a cop with a mustache and big glasses, and yes, Axe Cop looks just like the mental image of him I had when I was young. But Axe Cop doesn’t make me yearn for or remember an idealized past; it transports me there, turning me back into that weird little kid, and it does it with new ideas and current influences. Axe Cop is made of the same thing little boys are– snips, snails, puppy-dog tails… and also dinosaurs, graphic violence, and the logic of video games. I laughed myself silly all the way through this issue, and I can’t wait to read #3.
One totally Blue Thunder panel, out of a possible thousand:
Batman Incorporated #5 by Grunt Marigold, Yanick Paquette, Michel Lacombe, Nathan Fairbairn, and Pat Brosseau. $2.99, 22 pgs, FC, DC.
We’re all friends here, right? (Or enemies, whatever.) So I’ll be honest– I haven’t exactly been enamored with Grant Morrison’s Batman run. Sure, I’ve bought every issue, and yes, it’s had some high peaks– strangely enough, any issue where the art was actually good– but on the whole it’s been strangely unsatisfying, like the vegetarian option at a wedding reception. Morrison felt like he was retreading the basic beats of his New X-Men, only in a less exciting fashion. Thankfully, Batman Inc. is here, and it’s giving me everything I wanted from a Grant Morrison Batman comic, which is: an uber-competent Batman, big ideas, dense, complex storytelling, and great art– I dig the way Paquette draws the folds in Batman’s cape (see below), or all the little details on his gloves, as if this was the Batman Returns adaptation I read as a youngster. Morrison continues combining every previous aspect of Batman into a singular character, but he’s also finally reaching outside of Batmanology, drawing in a lot of 60s spy-fi elements, such as last issue, when we discovered Kathy Kane was secretly Emma Peel all along. I also love how the Mozz has no regard for DC’s new page limitations, and tosses in a 3-page sequence with African Jetpack Batman just because he feels like it. While we’re at it, I’m enjoying how the many Batmen and women appearing in this series have all been incredibly distinct in personality, culture, and style.
I have no idea when we’ll see Paquette and Lacombe grace these pages again– I didn’t even expect them to show up this issue. Let’s hope they make a return appearance before the year’s out.
One totally Baywatch Nights panel:
Now here’s a comic that is far better than it has any right to be. Spun off from the instant cult classic retro throwback blaxploitation nostalgia spoof Black Dynamite, this one-shot graphic novella recounts another adventure of the titular be-afro’d hero of the streets and all-around bad motherfucker. In this adventure, Alex Haley– yes, that Alex Haley– discovers what appears to be an escaped slave, leading Black Dynamite to investigate the presence of a resort island for racists called– you guessed it– Slave Island, run as if it was still the mid-1800s, with a sizable population of enslaved black men and women. Naturally, Black Dynamite vows to “burn this motherfucker down” and sets about doing so, kicking ass, taking names, leading a revolution, and laying a bit of pipe (“Once you go Black Dynamite, you never go back… to just plain black”).
The format of this thing is terrific: six clams for a squarebound, ad-free, double-sized comic single– all the better for resting on a shelf and being sold on Amazon. Aside from that, however, the book presents itself as an artifact from the 1970s, and tattoos its influences right on its burly biceps. The cover’s homage to Luke Cage is clear. Alex Haley– cast here as a physician at a free clinic– shows up to alert B.D. to “some diabolical shit” that is the escaped slave; his presence not only nods to the obvious “Roots,” but also to his role as screenwriter of the blaxploitation classic “SuperFly T.N.T.”, making him the perfect choice for a reality-based supporting character. Jun Lofamia’s detailed but rough-hewn art reminds me most of Don McGregor-era Jungle Action strips starring the Black Panther, and JM Ringuet’s faux-aged coloring makes the book appear to be a contemporary of that signature work. The creators even toss in a Charles Atlas parody– something that’s been done to death, but here lands its gags with a focus on, of all things, inner-city gun violence.
Brian Ash’s hilarious script holds everything together with its note-perfect riffing on everything expected of the blaxploitation genre, achieving the same brilliant tone as the filmmakers. The genre has seen a resurgence in recent years, borne out of a similar revival of the grindhouse genre(s). We’ve seen Black Dynamite, Afrodisiac, World of Hurt… what does this mean? Is it nostalgia? I think not, for these revivals have a heightened, at times absurd atmosphere not found in many of the original Blaxploitation classics. If anything it’s a focused nostalgia, preying on evolving, half-forgotten memories of a genre gone by, including what we remember and transforming it into what we wish it was. A blaxplotation reclamation.
Anyway, were it not for my unabashed adoration of Axe Cop, Black Dynamite: Slave Island would easily be the best comic I read this month. Seek it out! And here, have a preview.
One totally M.A.N.T.I.S. panel:
Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker #2 by Joe Casey, Mike Huddleston, Rus Wooton, and CSBG’s own Sonia Harris! $2.99, 18 pgs + 6 pgs backmatter, FC, Image.
The first issue of this series excited the hell out of me, as Joe Casey once again decided to wave his gentleman vegetables at the comics-reading audience, and Mike Huddleston drew (and colored!) the crap out of it, utilizing several different styles depending on the sequence and his own whims. This issue settles down just a bit from the manic high of the debut, introducing us to our cast of antagonists– luminaries such as Jihad Jones (he’s on the cover there), the Abominable Snowman, and the Absolutely, a cosmic hermaphrodite that could have sashayed out of Jim Starlin’s fever dreams. Meanwhile, the rest of the story pages drift into Smokey and the Bandit territory as Butcher comes into contact with the cop he screwed around with in the opener. Huddleston draws these scenes in a sketchier style with a limited color palette, whilst the super-villain scenes feel positively luminous in their use of color.
Aside from the art, however, the real reason to pick this comic up is for the backmatter, in which Joe Casey hits us with his righteous anger at the complacency of superhero comics. Again, it’s focused nostalgia, this time drafted from 70s superhero comics and Burt Reynolds movies, but rather than busy himself at safely steering the corporate ships (though Casey does write for the new/upcoming Spider-Man cartoon, after all), he keeps himself sane by chasing down the euphoric feeling of discovery superhero comics used to provide, pushing the form as far as he can each time. This is the pop Colin Smith was talking about earlier, something passionate, new, and crazy. Butcher Baker isn’t commercial, commodified, or safe– hell, by the time it wraps up, it might not even make any sense. But it could only exist in comics, and Casey and Huddleston are doing their best to melt our lizard brains. I don’t always like everything Casey does, but by God, he’s trying.
One totally Cop Rock panel:
I’ll admit it– I killed Thor: The Mighty Avenger. I had been trying to switch entirely to trades for my comics reading (you can see how I’ve already given up on that one), and I didn’t know what to expect from it, and I left it in the lurch. And then it died on the vine, neglected by the comics-reading public. (I still haven’t even bought the trades, because I’m evil.) But The Fighting Avenger? Written by Atomic Robo’s own Brian Clevinger? Well, I had to support that, and in single issues, to make sure it lived! Aaaand, of course, Marvel canceled it before it even began, because, as we all know, the comics market has been trained to not sell good comics that are accessible for wider audiences. It’s shameful.
What we end up with, then, is this one-shot, basically comprised of what would have been the first two issues of the series that never was. Is it good? Hell yes, it’s good. Clevinger once again writes a clever-but-not-showy script with terrific dialogue that practically glides through its war-movie scenario. This is Captain America’s first field mission, and he’s not the super-soldier we know; his shield doesn’t bounce back after he throws it at a Nazi, his compatriots (four new characters introduced as Cap’s babysitters) have no confidence in him, and he doesn’t even have a code-name yet (the General in charge cycles through several possible choices). And, this being a Captain America comic, the Red Skull and Baron Strucker show up.
Gurihuru’s art is probably too “cartoony” for your more discerning sweatpanted fans, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure how their style would work in a more adult, WWII setting, but they acquit themselves well, bringing dynamism to the action scenes, an openness to the good Captain’s character, and distinction to his war buddies, who would all blend together under a lesser artist’s pen.
So buy this, and then complain to Marvel about giving it the chop.
Two totally Tales of the Gold Monkey panels:
Dark Horse Presents #1 and, you know what? I’m just going to copy and paste Burgas’ credit thing: “Concrete: Intersection” by Paul Chadwick (writer/artist); “Marked Man Part One” by Howard Chaykin (writer/artist), Jesus Aburto (colorist), and Ken Bruzenak (letterer); “Blood Chapter One” by Neal Adams (writer/artist) and Moose (colorist); “Finder: Third World Chapter One” by Carla Speed McNeil (writer/artist), Jenn Manley Lee (colorist), and Bill Mudron (colorist); “Mr. Monster vs. Oooak!” by Michael T. Gilbert (writer/artist); “Xerxes Sneak Peek” by Frank Miller (writer/artist); “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” by Harlan Ellison (writer) and Leo and Diane Dillon (illustration); “Murky World Chapter One” by Richard Corben (writer/artist) and Clem Robins (letterer); “Star Wars – Crimson Empire III: The Third Time Pays for All” by Randy Stradley (writer), Paul Gulacy (artist), Michael Bartolo (colorist), and Michael Heisler (letterer); “Snow Angel” by David Chelsea; “Aaaaaaaaaaah” and “Personality Quiz” by Patrick Alexander (writer/artist). $7.99, 80 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.
So there I was, wondering why none of the bigger companies put together anthologies directed toward an actual mainstream audience, with a newsstand-friendly format of 80 pages for about eight bucks, and lo, it came true, for Dark Horse announced this series a few days later. Truly, I have the sight. This really is a great format, and the adrenaline-fueled rush of the new has brought some of comics’ biggest and/or best names to its pages– folks like Adams, Chaykin, Chadwick, Miller, Corben! If nothing else, the book is a handsome package.
Unfortunately, creators in the American market seem to have forgotten how to produce material for anthologies. Nearly all of the features in this first issue just sort of stop after eight pages, lacking general cohesion as chapters of a serialized story; a few hardly get around to introducing main characters or premises. A couple, such as Corben’s “Murky World” and Chelsea’s “Snow Angel,” manage to scrape by on atmosphere and mood alone; it helps that Corben’s is perhaps the most beautiful strip in the book. The most successful story overall is McNeil’s. I’ve never read a scrap of Finder before, but in eight confident, controlled pages, she introduces us to a character, provides us with all the necessary backstory we need, and eases us into a strange new world. It helps that her visual style looks absolutely terrific, right down to the lettering; not a line wasted, yet marvelously detailed and expressive. And hey, there’s Paul Chadwick, doing a complete story and showing you chumps how it’s done.
Howard Chaykin reunites with American Flagg! letterer Ken Bruzenak and does his best to bring his beloved, dense 80s visual style into the 21st century. The story Chaykin’s building doesn’t gel by the final page, but at least everything looks interesting– his line art appears unchanged from his recent Marvel work, but his friends work a different magic on it. Jesus Aburto provides a digital sheen to the art, and Bruzenak’s lettering seems to almost float above the images like internet pop-ups. iPad images on paper. Neal Adams’ “Blood,” on the other hand… good God. His page layouts still look perfectly fine, but the art itself has clearly become an exercise in the grotesque. The script is batshit crazy and 99% unreadable– it may as well be glossolalia.
The rest of the material doesn’t quite interest me enough to talk about– Miller provides a preview for Xerxes, drawn in an exploded style that’s inkier and more primal than ever before; Harlan Ellison’s short story is a Harlan Ellison short story; Mr. Monster is annoying rather than cute; Star Wars is also in this comic. Anthologies are often mixed bags, and this one’s no different; there’s very little here that compels me to pick up another issue, so I won’t. But I should definitely investigate further on Finder.
Three totally Team Knight Rider panels:
Is it wrong of me if I wish this series was all Commissioner Gordon, all the time? It’s not that I don’t like the Batman-centric stuff that Snyder and Jock provide us– no, it gives off the same vibe I once got from Bat-comics by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle, and Jim Aparo, which, coming from me, is the highest of compliments. But last issue, Snyder and Francesco Francavilla delivered a tense, engrossing powerhouse of an issue, and it’s almost a shame to go back to our regularly-schedule program, the adventures of Dick Grayson in a bat costume. Almost.
Dick Grayson wears the cape and cowl now, and the city reflects same. Snyder continues examining the ways in which Gotham eats its young, and how fathers are reflected in their children. For Dick Grayson, it means the mantle of the bat, but for James Gordon Jr, it means something else entirely– see that “Once in a blue moon” panel, with Gordon’s tortured face, for the burden that creates on the Commissioner. This episode, we’re introduced to another child, and another connection between Grayson and Gotham– Sonia Branch, the daughter of Tony Zucco, the man who killed Dick’s parents. We also meet a new criminal for this Batman to face, one the spitting image of the late Dwayne McDuffie.
Jock’s art flounders a bit in the dialogue-heavy scenes, though some of Gordon’s expressions are truly haunting. Still, Jock’s strengths lie in page design and making Batman look cool, which is why later sequences– check out that gorgeous page where Batman dives through the night sky (some of which is represented below)– appear far more striking than the talking head scenes.
Detective remains one of the few (the only?) Big Two comics that’s gaining sales traction rather than losing it– so do your part and pick it up. It’s a nice little underrated book.
One-and-two-thirds totally NightMan panels:
I don’t believe I read a scrap of CrossGen material back when it was an actual company, but I do remember hearing loads of good things about Ruse, and so happily purchased this series now that CrossGen has reappeared as a Marvel imprint. This is a Victorian detective comic about Sherlock Holmes, except that here, Sherlock Holmes is named Simon Archard, and Dr. Watson is now a lady named Emma Bishop, who’s basically Emma Peel in a big dress (if I can reference Emma Peel, I’ll do it). In this issue, we also meet what constitutes the Baker Street Irregulars in this universe, and they’re all quite weird and charming. I’m a sucker for “competency porn,” in which clever characters do clever things; I love when detectives can deduce the facts of a situation after a few quick observations. This series delivers.
I really don’t have much to say about this one. It’s a good comic, the art’s all right, and I’m glad to see something outside of the superhero genre coming from what we once called the House of Ideas. There’s a truly great twist/cliffhanger-y bit in the last few pages, but I dare not spoil it for my sensitive readers.
One totally Jake and the Fatman panel:
I suspect Super Dinosaur will find itself compared to Axe Cop quite a bit, but it’s a comparison that could never turn out in Super Dinosaur’s favor. Both comics achieve the tone of a Saturday Morning Cartoon; goodness knows Kirkman and Howard have already invented an entire toy line’s worth of heroes and villains in this one issue, with immensely marketable names like “Terrordactyl” and “Tricerachops.” Axe Cop, however, has the strength of a child’s effortlessly inventive imagination behind it, whereas Super Dinosaur has a couple of adults trying too hard to excite a young audience. Axe Cop is unbridled kid-created mayhem, but Super Dinosaur has been filtered through Stan Lee comics, 80s/90s cartoons, and Mega Man video games.
Our main character and narrator in this story is boy genius Derek Dynamo, whose best friend is a nine-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex who controls giant robot arms with the aid of a small gamepad he clutches in his tiny dinosaur hands. Together, they fight crime!™– or at least other, evil anthropomorphic dinosaurs sicced on them by Max Maximus. They all fight over something called “Dynore,” which is basically Energon, etc. Derek doesn’t hesitate to tell the reader just how awesome he is at all times– “I’m totally awesome,” “And it was [awesome],” “How awesome am I?”, “We’re kicking butt!”, etc.– the kid comes off as massively full of himself. Thankfully, the ending of the book finally brings us some emotionally realistic content we adults can sink our dentures into– Derek’s been covering for his scientist/inventor father, who seems to be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Until that point, however, our POV character is insufferable. Maybe all this works for the younger readers Kirkman’s aiming the book at, but it feels to me like he’s talking down to his audience. Clearly he’s put a lot of effort into making the book fun, exciting, and accessible– I assume he’s tailoring it to his kid’s tastes– but something about it just rings hollow for me. The comic keeps telling me how awesome it is, but it isn’t showing me.
The art suffers from none of these problems. Howard keeps things light and fresh, with good storytelling, spiffy designs (I love the whole robot-arm-controller thing SD has going on) and an inviting color palette. It looks exactly like the kind of thing kids are watching these days, and Howard throws himself into the book with gusto, panache, and thirty pieces of flair.
I’ve ordered the next two issues, and I’ve got the Free Comic Book Day Origin Special waiting for me, so I’m not giving up on Super Dinosaur just yet. If it settles into a solid focus on the emotion-rich, character-based element and tones down the precociousness, it may yet evolve into a must-buy. Sympathetic, rather than toyetic; TMNT, rather than Street Sharks.
One totally Manimal panel:
Okay, kids, here’s the deal. Xombi’s sales are already in trouble, and unless DC is comfortable with the series doing Wildstorm or Vertigo numbers, it’s already doomed. Stop reading this review and go buy the damned thing already. Then I’ll let you read it. Okay? Okay.
Rozum’s writing approach for Xombi reminds me an awful lot of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol: weird stuff constantly encroaches upon the protagonist(s), brilliant ideas are introduced and tossed off in the space of a panel, and the whole shebang has an eerie, foreboding tone, a dark thundercloud overhead at all times. Take this issue, f’r instance: “weirdness magnet” David Kim begins the issue having his arm turned inside out by a snow angel, whereupon he is rescued by some super-powered nuns and a Catholic schoolgirl, and then he teams up with a wasp-nest golem to fight a mythological creature of some sort. Rozum propels the reader through this story at an astounding rate, tossing in cool ideas as he sees fit, and ramping things up to the big cliffhanger. It’s tremendously strange, and tremendously interesting.
Frazer Irving, however, is the star of the book. His phantasmagoric art looks like nothing else in comics, and he drenches each scene or location in one primary color (well, not a primary color, but primarily one color, you get what I mean), often an unearthly hue like a frightful fuchsia or ghastly green, bold colors that almost irradiate the pages, because this is comics, dammit! I usually don’t like seeing pages bathed in one overbearing color, but Irving has a painterly sort of precision in his color choices, and the issue looks absolutely fab.
So why the hell isn’t anyone buying this series? Oh, that’s right. Comic readers hate joy.
One totally The Secret World of Alex Mack panel:
I realize I’m stealing Greg’s bit, but I don’t have an iPod and it would never be on shuffle, so let’s just skip right to the Totally Random Movie Quote, okay? Movie quotes, I can do:
“You should not run away from home.”
“I don’t like home.”
“Because my stepfather tried to rape me and he’s a werewolf.”
As you can see, I only watch cinematic masterpieces.
I have no idea how Burgas does a column like this every week; this one took me days, and exhausted me. The formatting alone…! You can probably see my brain slowly melting as you read along. I’m still not quite happy with it– that Super Dinosaur review is bugging me, I’m just not articulating my concerns properly– but, the hell with it. My respect for Burgas increased threefold! Nobody tell him I said that. (And I have no idea how he gets those little stars to show up. It’s impossible.)
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