Weekly Round-Up #35 with Hellboy, Sweet Tooth, The Surrogates, Shadowland, R.E.B.E.L.S. & more

This ended up being a great week for the hometown, as local talent appears in three different places on my Round-Up.  Jeff Lemire snagged the coveted ‘Best of the Week’ standing, while the Kill Shakespeare crew continued to impress.  Also, James Turner’s fabulous Warlord of Io came out (scroll way down for the review).  With all the attention from Scott Pilgrim, and the continued high quality of local creators, Toronto is becoming a comics town to rival NYC.

Best Comic of the Week:

Sweet Tooth #12

by Jeff Lemire

If you’ve heard good things about this comic, and have been thinking about checking it out, this is a great issue to jump on with.

One of my favourite things about Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy was the way in which he gave over a lot of real estate to show the quiet life on the farm.  Pages would go by with only a few panels and no words.  It was very effective, and easily done in a project where he had a lot of space to work with.  Writing and drawing a monthly comic doesn’t afford a cartoonist with the same freedom; something has to happen every month (insert remark about decompression here) or the readers disappear.

With this issue, Lemire finds an interesting way to have a ‘silent’ comic, yet still cover a lot of story ground.  There are two narrative tracks in this issue.  Most of each page shows what’s been going on with Gus, now that he is in captivity.  He gets showered and placed with some of the other hybrid children that he has met before.  Nothing is said in this section, but we are able to feel a great amount of empathy for Gus, who clearly doesn’t understand what’s going on.

At the bottom of each page, there is a narrow horizontal panel that focuses on Dr. Singh, the man that discovered Gus’s lack of a belly button (with all that implies).  He is dictating an account of what is going on, starting with the emergence of H5-G9, the disease that started the world on the road to its current dire straits, and moving up to his discovery about Gus.  It gives him a more human side, helps to explain some deep background for the series, and slows down the comic, so it isn’t a three-minute read.

Lemire’s doing some very cool work with this comic, and this issue helps to build a lot of suspense for what is coming.  This feels like the freshest and most experimental thing that Vertigo has put out in years, and they should be commended for standing by a project like this which is so far outside of their usual style.

Other Notable Comics:

Baltimore: The Plague Ships #1

Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Art by Ben Steinbeck

This new series tosses us into the story pretty quickly without explaining a lot of things, but here’s what is made clear:  The Great War ended early because of a plague, and there are vampires feeding off the infected towns.  This Baltimore guy, who has a wooden leg (which doesn’t slow him down at all) is chasing the vampires, specifically looking for one with a scar on his face.

He almost catches up with them, but lightning strikes the dirigible that they are using to escape, and he meets with an old woman who might or not be a witch, before being put in jail, accused of witchcraft his own self.

This comic is apparently a follow-up to a novel that Mignola and Golden wrote featuring the same character, and this is supposed to happen between the scenes of the book, which is a little annoying for people who haven’t read it (like me).  However, this is a very cool comic, with vampires running around in Prussian helmets, and fantastic Ben Steinbeck art.  While a little more exposition would have been helpful, I’m definitely on board for the rest of the series.

Greek Street #14

Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Werther Dell’Edera

It’s no surprise that Greek Street couldn’t make more of a go of things (it’s being canceled in two issues), but it is a bit of a shame.  I think, had Milligan started with more stories like the one in this issue, which finishes the three-part Ajax arc, the book may have had more success.

Ajax has told the story of Alex, a lower-class British soldier whose life fell apart in Afghanistan, where he was injured.  He has a pretty severe case of PTSD, although he has not been receiving any treatment for it.  He has fixated on the Minister for Defense, claiming that he has blocked him from receiving a medal, because Alex ‘took the piss’ out of him during a press conference.  In this issue, Alex takes the Minister hostage, and is forced to confront his messed-up reality.

Previous stories in this series have worked at integrating Greek myth into the story.  Characters are meant to be stand-ins or reincarnations of Greek heroes or legends.  If there is a precedent for this story, which does have Alex experiencing visions of a ghostly Ajax, I don’t know it.  I think this looser interpretation of the structure of the series that has made this story work better.

Hellboy: The Storm #2

Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Duncan Fegredo

Now that I’m completely caught-up on reading all the old Hellboy and BPRD comics, it’s nice to be able to follow all of Mignola’s series in ‘real-time’.

This issue has Hellboy finish his fight with the guy on the cover, as Merlin tells off the pig demon that’s been plaguing our hero for a while now.

Most interesting in this issue is that Hellboy sees Kate Corrigan on TV.  I’ve wondered how he’s managed to remain ignorant of some of the stuff that’s been happening in BPRD.  It made sense that he wasn’t aware of much when he was hanging out with ghosts, but now that he’s back in the real world, and considering the immensity of what’s been going on in the sister title, I’m glad to see that addressed.

The last page of this comic is very cool, and makes me look forward to seeing how this arc finishes off next month.

I, Zombie #4

Written by Chris Roberson
Art by Michael Allred

This new series keeps getting stronger and stronger.  Four issues in, Roberson decides it’s time to explain what’s going on with all the zombies, vampires, ghosts, wereterriers (seriously), and guys in white suits that have been running around since the book started.  All of this exposition comes from Amon, the guy that Gwen has been hunting down ever since she ate the brains of his murder victim.

As it turns out, Amon is a form of zombie as well, and all of these phenomena are linked to the Egyptian belief that each person has multiple souls.  The concepts of an oversoul and undersoul are put to very effective use here, in a way that makes perfect sense (in a comic book spirituality sort of way), and lays the groundwork for the future of the book.

I like that there is a strong sense of internal logic to structure this comic, and believe that a lot can be done with it.  Gwen proves herself to be increasingly likable (I like the undersold line), as do many of the other supporting characters.  Allred’s doing some excellent work, with a few pages here showing his trademarked way of having characters walk through large panels.  Great stuff.

Kill Shakespeare #4

Written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col
Art by Andy Belanger

This is another great issue of the adventure fantasy series that mashes up the different Shakespearian plays into a Lord of the Rings-style quest story.

This issue has Hamlet and Falstaff in drag, and introduces Juliet and Othello as being central figures in the Prodigal Revolution.  As King Richard’s men track down Hamlet, Iago and Othello cross paths, which isn’t pleasant.

This is a title that I’m enjoying a lot, and want to speak highly of, but at the same time, I don’t really have anything new to say with this issue.  This is a remarkably consistent title, and deserves to be checked out.

Murderland #1

Written by Stephen Scott
Art by David Hahn

Here’s the solicitation for the first issue of Murderland:

Artist DAVID HAHN joins newcomer STEPHEN SCOTT to tell a story of doomed romance, bloodshed and the outer limits of human potential, all unfolding on the “complicated” streets of Baltimore, Maryland. The Arabber is a reformed killer bent on bringing peace to his hometown. Method is his lover and partner in crime, but she may not be long for The Arabber’s crusade. The first of many genre-bending stories in the MURDERLAND universe.

As someone who has had all other television ruined for him by Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire, seeing a comic set on the streets of Baltimore, and centred around an Arabber, is immediately attractive.  However, the Arabber in this comic doesn’t seem to be an Arabber (there is not a single horse or even piece of fruit in sight), and apparently the “complicated” streets of Baltimore now include lush penthouses and mansions with armed guards.

The main character appears to be a girl named Method, who seems to be an assassin (or possibly a serial killer) who likes to seduce her victims before garroting them with razor wire.  She is a ‘master of disguise’, and might be in a relationship with our Arabber.  The two of them go to some rich guy’s house (surrounded by the aforementioned armed guards), where some other dude with an eyepatch is creeping around.  Method and Eyepatch (his name is Precurseur, and they know each other) appear to have superhuman strength and agility, and Method can grow bones outside of her skin like the X-Men Marrow.  The Arabber can’t be killed.

Beyond that, I have no idea what’s going on.  Is this a vampire comic?  Why are we treated to so many panels showing what the old dude is watching on TV?  What are the cops at the end talking about when they talk about Sesame Street, Barney, and Howdy Doody? Why does the back cover have a barbarian bikini chick and a sabretooth tiger doing an homage to old school Coppertone ads? Am I the only one that’s lost/disappointed/not that interested?

Hahn is a capable artist, but his style is too light for this type of story.  It needs a grittier look.  And some story coherence…

Shuddertown #4

Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Adam Geen

How often have you found yourself totally getting caught up into a comic without having a clue what’s going on?  Okay, and now, how many times has it happened to you, and the book wasn’t by Grant Morrison?

Basically, I’m very in to Shuddertown, but I’m also completely lost.  Perhaps it’s the delay between issues that is messing with me.  Maybe it’s the fact that characters get introduced in one issue, and then don’t show up again until much later (like the reporter lady in #3, who has nothing to do with this issue).

At the end of the day, Spencer’s created a very atmospheric and intriguing story, but it’s hella hard to follow.  I want to see how it ends, but unless there is a ton of exposition in that last issue, I’m not sure that Spencer can pull this off.  I think I’m going to have to read all five issues at the same time, so that it’s all fresh when I read the conclusion.

Sparta U.S.A. #6

Written by David Lapham
Art by Johnny Timmons

David Lapham makes some very cool comics.  He has a unique approach to writing, and often peoples his books with duplicitous and immoral people, who usually get what’s coming to them.  In Sparta USA, he examines some of his usual themes, but from a different perspective.

The town of Sparta is built on the two pillars of American culture: football and violent self-interest.  When the former Spartan hero, Godfrey McLaine returned to the town after years of absence, he upset the order of things.  The Maestro, the mysterious leader of the town, responded by attacking with an army of Nazis (yes, Nazis).

This final issue has the final battle between McLaine and his army, and the Nazi forces.  It reveals just about everything that I have been wondering about since the beginning of the book, and explains the source of The Maestro’s power.  It also has a couple of twists I didn’t expect, especially at the very end.

The art has been decent throughout the series, and the story, while frequently bizarre, was interesting and enjoyable.  I hope to see more work from Lapham soon (hopefully he’ll draw something again).

Supergod #4

Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Garrie Gastonny

It was a surprise to see that this book was released this week (it was originally solicited for February), and reading it after a a gap between issues of about four months, it becomes a good illustration of the limitations of Warren Ellis as a writer.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Ellis.  He’s written tons of comics that I love, but he is known as someone who returns to the same well a little too often.  That’s not really my complaint with Supergod though.

Supergod is about artificial gods that have been created by the different nations, in a new twist on the superhuman cold war approach that we’ve seen many times before.  The gods are fascinating, and take many interesting and novel forms.  There is a British god made up of mushroom spores from space growing on the conjoined bodies of three astronauts.  How cool is that?

The problem is that the story lacks any emotional centre.  The whole thing is narrated by one of the scientists who worked on the British project, and he’s narrating through a telephone to his American colleague.  The world is well and truly screwed at this point (the Iranian god was tossed through the moon, destroying it), and it’s kind of hard to care.  The narrator could be writing a government report for all we care about him, and it becomes increasingly clear that Ellis is simply playing out these ideas without bothering to invest the story with any real human interest.

Had he structured this as a longer series, and had taken the time to develop the characters and the world, this could be quite fascinating.  As it stands right now, it’s kind of cool, but heartless.

Quick Takes:

Captain America #608 – This was a bit of a disappointing issue.  I’m not really feeling this Baron Zemo arc, although with Bucky Cap now being outed to the media, at least it has served a purpose in terms of the long-term story.  I think what threw me the most here was the art.  Butch Guice is a terrific artist usually, but something really didn’t work here.  The figures felt stiff, and there were way too many old-school poses.  The pages where Cap and the Black Widow fight the new Beetle look like they might have come straight from the 70s.  And once again, I don’t really like the Nomad back-up, mostly because I think it’s best for everyone to just pretend that Heroes Reborn never happened, rather than making it canon.

Daredevil Black & White #1 – This is a decent anthology, although I would have preferred to see a comic from Nocenti and Aja rather than a prose story.  Rick Spears’s story is great – a tale of the Kingpin’s business acumen.  Peter Milligan’s story is okay, but on such familiar ground as to cause deja vu.

Hawkeye & Mockingbird #3 – This is a good old-school superhero comic, with a pretty standard bad guys looking for revenge/death trap plot.  It’s not blowing me away on any level, but it’s solidly enjoyable.  Does it get added to the pull-list?  I’ll buy next month’s issue before I decide…

Jonah Hex #58 – It’s nice to see Gray and Palmiotti teaming up again with Giancarlo Caracuzzo, their partner on the excellent The Last Resort and Random Acts of Violence for this strange Jonah Hex story.  The issue is partly narrated by a bullet, which is an ineffective story device when you can’t tell which bullet is talking.  Each time Hex fired his gun, I thought we were done with that particular narrator.  It’s almost like there is a collective bullet consciousness narrating, and that’s just silly.  (Of course, if the gun was telling the story, we’d have that recent issue of Unknown Soldier).  I found the story jumped all over the place, and that the inclusion of the woman with the scar on her face was out of place throughout the story.

REBELS #19 – This is good, but I would have liked to see a few more of the supporting cast members make an appearance (although the Khundian porn scene is gold).  The Brainiac family feud continues, with Colu getting devastated, and Vril having to call in his secret weapon (who we all knew would show up eventually).

Secret Six #24 – I feel like maybe I’ve missed something here.  This whole issue retells the first arc of this series, but sets it in the Old West, where Deadshot is a bounty hunter, Scandal is a sheriff, and Ragdoll’s sister wants to take over the town.  It’s a good comic, in a high-quality fan fiction way, but it’s a bizarre thing to do, especially with no explanation.  Between this and last month’s inventory issue, I’m starting to get nervous that no one is too sure of what to do with this title anymore.

Secret Warriors #18 – This is a very cool issue, as the Howling Commandos take on Hydra bases in China, and share some witty war stories in flashback.  It’s starting to feel like Hickman’s long-term plan for this title is coming together.  I’m not sure how much longer this series is meant to run, but I’ve been enjoying it a lot lately.

Shadowland #2 – I think I like Shadowland in theory more than execution.  It’s cool that more characters are being drawn into what’s happening in Hell’s Kitchen, but there are a couple of things that I can’t really get behind.  For one, Kingpin doesn’t seem like the type to resort to spells and mysticism to get what he wants.  For another, Murdock is acting more rashly than ever before, and it doesn’t fit his character.  It’s nice to see a ‘street’ comic again though; it’s been a while.

SHIELD #3 – This comic has been garnering a lot of praise for Hickman’s writing, as it delivers to a more mainstream audience his ability to delve into some strange and big ideas, even if it is a little lacking in terms of characterization.  This issue is all flashback, ending in the exact same place as #2, although from a different perspective.  What we get is the story of Isaac Newton, and how he came to be on the Shield (involving some truly deviant sex).  The Galactus scene is cool, but the letters between Galileo and Pope Gregory are the highpoint of the book to me.  I don’t know how long this title is supposed to run, but it’s clear Hickman is in no rush to finish his story.  If you like this title, you should read his Pax Romana trade paperback.

Comics I Would Have Bought if They Weren’t $4:

Avengers Prime #2

Captain America Forever Allies #1

Doomwar #6

Gorilla Man #2

Irredeemable #16

Shadowland Bullseye #1

Spitfire #1

The Week in Graphic Novels:

The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone

Written by Robert Venditti
Art by Brett Weldele

I really liked the first Surrogates collection, and although I knew that this volume was pretty much only created to tie in with the movie (which I haven’t seen), I figured it was worth checking out nonetheless.

This story, structured as a four issue mini-series, even though it was only released in this collected format, serves as a prequel to the original comic.  As such, it covers the backstory of many of the key players in that book, while telling the story of the Hayes case and how it was used to build the power and profile of the Prophet.

Had I read these two books close together in time, I’m sure I would have found this story rather unnecessary and frustrating, as it would have been going over familiar ground.  Since it’s been almost a year since I read the other book, I was able to enjoy this on a more individual level, although I did always have a sense of knowing what was going to happen next.

Venditti makes good use of this retroactive opportunity to lay the groundwork of the world he’s constructed, I just don’t know how essential it really is.  To read this followed by the other book might be a better way for a new reader to experience the story.

As is increasingly the case, Weldele does a great job on the art, turning in some of his clearest and most easily followed work to date.  This has been an interesting property, but I think there is little more to say on this subject or about these characters.

Long Hot Summer

Written by Eric Stephenson
Art by Jamie McKelvie

I’m not sure that I can agree with the notion that a summer can be long – they seem increasingly fleeting, but this has definitely been a hot summer, so this seemed like an appropriate comic to read.  Stephenson and McKelvie put together this nice little twenty-something romantic comedy book back in 2005, while Stephenson was Executive Director at Image and McKelvie had not yet started working on Phonogram.

This is a quick, light read that is pretty enjoyable.  Steve is a pretty cool guy – he dresses well, and has a large group of friends who make up a ‘scene’.  He’s a Fred Perry-wearing indie rock twenty-two year old, who has a very strange relationship with his friend Ken.  Ken is a bit of a loser – he has no money or car, and constantly mooches off people, especially Steve, who always defends him to their other friends.  It’s pretty clear from the beginning that, were it not for Steve sticking up for him, Ken would have no friends.

As the story starts, Ken has met Ashley, and they are maybe dating.  This all starts to change when Ashley meets, and falls for Steve, and the predictable begins to happen.  Friendships are tested, things are said, etc. etc.  The story may not be groundbreaking, but the enjoyment lies in the execution, and this is a very well-put together comic book.

Most of Stephenson’s output before this book consisted of crappy 90s Image comics, and B- or C-list titles at Marvel, co-written with Erik Larsen.  It’s nice to see that he can handle a more mature, well-balanced story.  McKelvie’s involvement in this book makes it feel like a version of proto-Phonogram.  There are more than a few panels where Steve looks like David Kohl, the star of the first Phonogram story.  This, of course, is not a bad thing, as McKelvie is brilliant (read Suburban Glamour).

Achewood Vol. 1: The Great Outdoor Fight

by Chris Onstad

I don’t really like reading on-line comics, and I tend to avoid the ‘funny animal’ genre, but last Christmas Chris Butcher waged a guerrilla marketing campaign by posting links to the best Christmas-themed Achewood strips on his website, and I started to really like Onstad’s work.

This book tells the story of The Great Outdoor Fight, an annual competition where some 3000 men get into a giant arena and pound on each other until there’s only one left.  On the second day, the two people with the largest followings get to have turkey and bourbon.

Ray, one of the main characters in the series, discovers that his father was the winner of the 1973 fight, and decides to enter the competition.  His friend Roast Beef enters as well.  The two plot and scheme their way to the top, and much hilarity ensues.

Onstad’s art is very simple, but is effective here.  He pads the book with historical reference on the fight, including its history, biographies of past winners, and a helpful glossary of fight-specific vocabulary.  One of the best things about this book are the old posters that fill the inside covers.

Achewood is highly recommended.

Star Wars Legacy Vol.4 – Alliance & Vol. 5 – The Hidden Temple

Written by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema
Art by Omar Francia, Alan Robinson, Jan Duursema, and Dan Parsons

I thought it would be a good day to read a big chunk of Ostrander’s excellent Star Wars series, and polished off two trades, Alliance and The Hidden Temple.

This is basically the Star Wars that I wanted after I turned fourteen.  There is a rational attempt to understand galactic politics, and the droids and other cutesy creatures are kept to the barest of minimums.  Legacy is so much more than Cade Skywalker, and the Alliance trade is the best example of that I can think of.  I’m not sure that Cade is in it at all beyond in flashback.

Instead, Ostrander focuses on other goings on in the galaxy.  Most of Alliance is taken up with the plan of Admiral Gar Stazi, the commander of the final remnants of the Galactic Alliance to steal a new Advanced Star Destroyer from Darth Krayt, the Sith leader of the Empire.  To tell this tale properly, Ostrander develops a large number of characters, and fills in the story of what happened to the rest of the Alliance fleet.  There is also a story about the consequences of these actions on the Mon Calamari, and another one-off tale that has Darth Wyyrlok, Darth Krayt’s aide de camp, as he tries to research new methods of healing his master.

The Hidden Temple, on the other hand, is all Cade.  In it, Cade and his friends turn to Cade’s uncle for help (yes, yet another Skywalker), and he in turn, takes them to a secret Jedi temple.  They get followed by some Imperial Knights, and all these factions sit down to discuss a course of action to put a stop to the Sith.  This gets a little heavy in terms of Force-based mumbo jumbo, as once again, the Jedi are portrayed as being reluctant to act.  These scenes may have become too much to handle, except that Ostrander wisely intersperses them between scenes that have some of the secondary characters interacting.  Most interesting are the scenes where Cade’s friend Syn reveals the root of his hatred to the Jedi.

This series tells a massive, and very involved story.  It is science fiction just as I like it, with big space battles and really strong character work.  Duursema is always excellent, as are the other artists that provide work on this title.  I regret not having gotten on board with this sooner, but who knew that Star Wars comics could be this good?

Warlord of Io

by James Turner

There is nothing like a James Turner comic.  He works at a level of madcap creativity that is almost beyond description, and has just completed what has to be one of his craziest stories yet.

Warlord of Io tells the story of Zing, an adolescent 26 year old prince, who, due to his father’s sudden abdication, is thrust into the role of Emperor of Io, a job he never wanted.  Zing’s ambitions never extended past defeating video games and becoming an intergalactic rock star.  Now he has a gigantic empire, held together by a massive military industrial complex, to manage.

His close friend and potential love interest, Moxy Comet, encourages him to implement social reforms and to improve the lives of everyday Ions, at the expense of the military budget.  This immediately leads to a military coup led by the ambitious and ruthless General Grymak.  Grymak quickly pulls together support in the military when he lies about having the former Emperor’s support, and things start to move quickly.

Zing and Moxy, accompanied by Urk the loyal bodyguard and a cutting off a wise philosophical plant, escape, and most of the book is concerned with their adventures trying to avoid Grymak’s legions, as Grymak works to consolidate his power.

The strength of this comic lies in the diversity of characters, races, and items Turner has created in building up his Ion Empire.  Hundreds of alien species, weird ships, guns, and ambassadorial protocols fill this comic, and that’s before you get to the Tiki Space Pirates.  This comic is frequently funny, and politically very sharp.

It does lack the more literary and philosophical commentaries found in Rex Libris and Nil, but this is a consistently good book throughout.  Turner’s computer-designed artwork can take some getting used to, as the panels are absolutely packed with details, but much of the fun of reading his comics come from exploring each frame of artwork.

Highly recommended.

Album of the Week:

Paper Tiger – Made Like Us

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