Weekly Round-Up #38 with Battlefields, X-Men, Batman & Invincible

This was a pretty comics-oriented week, with Fan Expo hitting town.  I waited until Sunday to go, as I figured that it would be less busy.  Last year, I arrived just as the doors were opening on the Sunday and walked straight in.  This year, I was in line for almost two hours to get my ticket, as the place was booming.  It was a decent enough show, with I think too much emphasis on movies and non-comics stuff.  It seems most of the crowd was there for the celebrities, and so the comics aisles weren’t too crowded.  I don’t like to bother the comics professionals – I don’t get sketches or buy original art, and so I have nothing to report.  Most of the bigger name creators were away from their booths anyway.  Look for next week’s column to have reviews of the single issues I bought – the graphic novels will get read eventually.  I went specifically looking for three back issues – two Human Targets, and one Universal War One, and came back with none of them.  Very disappointing…

Best Comic of the Week:

Scalped #40

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by RM Guera

It’s never hard to guess what I’m going to write when there’s a new issue of Scalped, and that’s because this book is consistently amazing.

This issue is the second in the ‘Unwanted’ arc, and it opens like the last issue did, with a scene at an abortion clinic.  What we learn in this one is that Gina Bad Horse, Dash’s mother, had had an abortion when Dash was quite young.  From there, the book looks in on most of the central cast.

Red Crow meets with Wade, Dash’s father, who has returned to the Rez.  The meeting stays civil, but only barely so, as it becomes clear the amount of resentment the two men harbor for each other, the root of which appears to be Gina.  Carol is now staying at Granny’s house, and we get a glimpse of the domestic chaos there.  It’s nice to see Dino again (he’s a character I have a huge soft spot for), and gratifying to see that he’s taking increased care of his daughter.  Carol is on a methadone program, and seems to be in a better place than she was last issue.

Dash, meanwhile, is handcuffed in a sweat lodge, in what appears to be an attempt to detox him.  Shunka is sitting vigil nearby, but it’s not clear who is behind this effort – if Shunka is working of his own initiative, or if this is being done at Red Crow’s behest.

This arc, ‘Unwanted’, seems to be really focusing on the parenting skills of our cast.  Wade all but accuses Red Crow of wishing that Dash was his, and that helps to explain some of the complexity in their relationship.  And, at the heart of everything once again, are Dash’s unresolved feelings towards his mother.  Aaron is creating a masterpiece here.

Other Notable Comics:

Battlefields #9

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Russ Braun

Battlefields has done a great job of satisfying my cravings for a regular dose of war comics, and so I’m sorry to see this second volume finish.

With this issue, Ennis concludes the story arc he began with the first Battlefields mini-series, The Night Witches, which focuses on (now) Captain Anna Kharkova, a female Russian pilot during the Second World War.  With this issue, Anna is put in charge of a group of six new female pilots, who have only barely been trained to fly.  She grounds them, but while she is on a mission, a new political officer arrives at the airbase and sends them out.  Anna and the Colonel (who she has been getting very close to) now must fly out and try to find them.

Ennis shows what things were like for the Soviet army quite effectively.  The most frequent Soviet technique in the war was to try to overwhelm a better trained and equipped force with sheer numbers, the only real asset the Soviets had.  This led to some brutal battles and massive amounts of losses.  The psychological toll of such a thing is shown here.

What I have enjoyed most about the Battlefields series is that Ennis has taken the time to examine some lesser-known aspects of the Second World War, and has enriched my knowledge of that time while providing some very impressive stories.  I sincerely hope there is a Volume 3 in the works.

Ghost Projekt #4

Written by Joe Harris
Art by Steve Rolston

This issue is probably the best of the series so far, and that’s saying a lot as this has been an excellent comic.  In this issue, we have a ghostly, rampaging Tartar (see the cover), the benefits of being friends with an ethereal girl, and a wicked use of hypnosis.

When this story started (even despite the name), I saw it as a biological weapons, post-Cold War thriller, and that’s what it is, but it has integrated the supernatural quite effectively.

Rolston’s art has been terrific throughout this series.  He’s become a little less cartoonish in his approach, and it works very well here.  He’s always done well with scenes that are focused on people, but his action scenes in this book are incredible.  Recommended.

Unknown Soldier #23

Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Alberto Ponticelli

Now that I’ve read this, there are only two issues of Unknown Soldier remaining, and that makes me sad.  This book has been amazing since it started, and it’s going to be a shame to not be able to pick it up each month.

With this issue, Moses is no longer Moses.  Instead, he’s back to being Subject 9, and he’s back to working for the CIA (or so they think).  He insists that, if he’s going to work with them, they must bring Jack Lee Howl out of retirement to be his handler.  He is, of course, working a different plan, and it’s not long before Moses/9 and Howl are on the run.

Most significantly, this issue has Moses/9 meet up with Sera, Moses’s wife.  This is a scene that has been a long time coming, and Dysart works it perfectly, interspersing what’s happening with scenes from their relationship together.

Now, with two issues left, Moses/Subject 9 is heading into the bush to attempt to kill Joseph Kony, while the flashback sequences that have been book-ending recent issues move towards revealing just what the original Unknown Soldier said to Subject 9 the first time they met.

Oh – if, like it has with me, this book has piqued your interest in Uganda, there’s a terrific article in the new issue of Harper’s about how right wing evangelical Christians in the US have influenced the Ugandan government into considering a bill that makes homosexuality a capital offense.

Wolfskin: Hundredth Dream #4

Written by Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer
Art by Gianluca Pagliarani

I only just realized that this was a six-issue mini-series.  Many of these Ellis/Avatar series have trained me to expect between three and five issues for a series, and with the last issue, I figured there could only be enough story for one more at most, until I read this chapter.

The Wolfskin and his crew are still fighting mechanical beast-like things in the Northern barbarian lands – this time a large flying device that drops balls of flame.  They fight it.

That’s about it for plot, but Ellis and Wolfer manage to work in some decent character moments – I especially like the Wolfskin’s approach to solving problems, and the scene where the Noi scientist begins to doubt his usefulness.

The real star of this issue is Pagliarani, who gets to design any number of cool medieval machines, and a huge city/device that resides inside a volcano.  This is a pretty simple comic, but it’s quite pleasurable.

Quick Takes:

Astonishing X-Men #35 – I was a little surprised to see that this book was finally going to be coming out (what with its follow-up title already being two issues deep and way late itself).  Ellis finishes up his rather strange story with an even stranger villain, and lots more intra-team bickering.  This was a fun little run, which would have been more enjoyable had it been more regular in its shipping.  Now that it’s done, is there any chance he’ll go back to working on Doktor Sleepless?

Avengers #4 – I’m still very much on the fence with this title, although I think this issue was marginally better than the last.  Bendis has New York going all ‘The War That Time Forgot’ while a smaller group goes to the future to hang out with the Maestro/Hulk who I only vaguely remember from his earlier appearances, and nothing much is explained.  I don’t know why, if you’re going to have Killraven in a comic, you would ever want to turn him into a whiny bitch.  I’m still really not feeling Romita’s art on this book.

Batman #702 – This finishes off the two-issue run where Morrison was going to explain what happened with Batman between RIP and Final Crisis.  Batman puts it best when he says “It’s getting harder to remember how it all happened.”  This might have worked better closer to the time it was published, because now I’m finding it hard to care.  It’s a little like watching deleted scenes on a DVD three months after you’ve watched the movie.

Captain America #609 – Things are looking better than last issue (well, not for Cap they aren’t), as Brubaker continues with this old-school supervillain revenge story.  I think when this story is finished, we need to find a plot that doesn’t completely depend on BuckyCap’s past, or his feelings about it.  Biggest surprise of the month?  The Nomad back-up is starting to grow on me…

Fantastic Four #582 – I’m not sure I fully understand what the deal is with all the Franklin and Valeria in the future stuff, but I did enjoy the Reed’s dad in the past plotline.  Here’s a question though – if Doom (before he became a Dr.) had a helmet that could control peoples’ minds, why did he not work that tech into later armor designs?  I would think that would be useful.

Garrison #5 – With this issue, we finally get some of the backstory that really wasn’t all that hard to figure out in the first place as Garrison and Bracewell go off the grid to avoid their pursuers.  There’s some nice dialogue and very nice work by Francavilla, but I think this mini-series could have been more effective had it been shorter.

Guarding the Globe #1 – With Invincible off in space for a while, Kirkman decided to put together a book featuring the Guardians of the Globe, among other characters, to help the reader keep up on events on Earth.  There’s a big cast here, but Kirkman and co-writer Benito Cereno manage to give everyone a little something to do (the heroes hanging out at Black Samson’s house being my favourite scene).  Relative newcomer Ransom Getty is great on the art – he’s a little more realistic than Walker and Ottley, but still fits well within the established Invincible look.  This promises to be a fun title.

Heroic Age: Prince of Power #4 – Much as Amadeus Cho’s own mini-series got its start in the Hercules: Fall of an Avenger two-parter, this title is leading directly into Chaos War, which looks to be Marvel’s next excuse to run a bunch of spin-off minis and one-shots with characters that I like.  I hope there’s a role for Cho in all that, as he’s a character I’ve become quite fond of.  This was a good, fun little continuation of the great run Pak and Van Lente had on Hercules.

Invincible #74 – This is a terrific all-action issue as Mark finally recovers from his injuries and the Viltrumites attack the Coalition at their headquarters.  No one draws crazy space battles like Ryan Ottley as this arc just keeps getting better and better.

Legion of Super-Heroes #4 – This is coming around to be a decent run of the Legion.  I like how Levitz flips between the different squads and missions that the Legion is currently dividing itself into, and the notion of a good old-fashioned Legion election has me excited.  The decision to bump this title up to 40 pages is a good one, as there are a lot of characters to give some screen time to.

Science Dog #1 – It’s Robert Kirkman week, as he releases this collection of his two previously-published Science Dog stories.  I’d read one, so it’s nice to see the other before SD shows up in the next issue of Invincible.  Truthfully, it’s fun as an every two years and a month sort of thing, but I would never read a mini-series or ongoing with this character.

Secret Warriors #19 – This current ‘Last Ride of the Howling Commandos’ arc has been great, with it’s multi-tiered storytelling and events of great consequence.  There are a few things that happen in this story that I’m sure long-time HC fans aren’t going to like, but it all fits with the story, and adds great weight to whatever is going to come next.  Hickman’s been getting a lot of praise for his work on FF and SHIELD, but I think this is his best Marvel book.

Superman/Batman #75 – Being a sucker for a good marketing campaign (and a beautiful Frank Quitely cover), I picked this up.  The two-page strips that round out the book are pretty nice, although pretty ephemeral.  The main story, featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes and art by Jerry Ordway is decent, but again, pretty forgetful.  What’s the deal with this book anyway – is it supposed to be in continuity, before Bruce ‘died’?

X-Factor #208 – This issue felt a little off.  It might be the art, which was serviceable, but it more seemed like a characterization thing.  I don’t buy the way that Rahne acted in this book.  I can see her having an issue with Rictor and Shatterstar’s relationship – she is pretty Catholic after all – but she’s never been so manipulative.

X-Men Legacy #239 – I have very little to say about this comic.  It’s not bad, but it’s not very impressive either.  I was a little surprised by the scene where Indra’s arranged bride meets him and comments on how he looks like his brother, when his brother isn’t pink.  Are we to take from this that his Zoroastrian family, which is so rigidly focused on tradition and obedience, is also completely without prejudice?  Seems false…

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

Bullet to the Head #3

Namor the First Mutant #1

Punisher Max Happy Ending #1

Shadowland Moon Knight #1

Superman Secret Origin #6

Thor #613

X-Men Curse of the Mutants – Blade #1

X-Men Curse of the Mutants – Storm and Gambit #1

Bargain Comics:

Age of Heroes #3 – This issue is better than the last, with a nice story featuring the three Avengers liaisons (Avenger’s Angels?) squaring off against Absorbing Man.  It’s a fun story, with nice Brad Walker art.  The Blue Marvel story didn’t do much for me, but I never read his mini, so don’t know anything about the character.  The Taskmaster story has me wanting to get the mini-series that starts next week (I guess it served its purpose), and the Dan Slott/Ty Templeton one-pager (this time featuring Squirrel Girl) was once again the best thing in the comic.

Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Black Cat #2 – So I started picking these up only for the Javier Pulido artwork (which is brilliant, even if he didn’t finish the whole issue), but I’m surprised to find myself so involved in the story.  Felicia is being manipulated into recovering the Kravenoff family treasures by a burglar that has taken her mother hostage.  The cool thief stuff (breaking into a Gehry-designed museum in Romania) balances well with the family drama.  I didn’t even get that annoyed when Pulido was replaced by Javier Rodriguez for the last five pages or so.

Wolverine: Weapon X #15 – This Deathlok story went way too long, and wasn’t really a Wolverine story at all.  But, I figure we should just let Jason Aaron do what he wants.

X-Men: Hellbound #3 – Reading this after the New Mutants issues that came after it, I’m surprised by how Yost’s characterizations of Sam, Illyana, and Megan don’t jibe with what came afterwards.  This issue ends with the two girls looking like they might work towards some resolution between them, and Sam comes off feeling very self-assured.  I think I like this interpretation better.  This was a decent mini-series.

The Week in Graphic Novels:

Burma Chronicles

by Guy Delisle

It’s nice to finally finish Guy Delisle’s unofficial trilogy of memoirs set in dictatorships (the first two books are Pyongyang and Shenzhen), with this book set primarily in Rangoon, but named for the entire country (unless you prefer to call it Myanmar).

Similarly to the first two books, Delisle spends a stretch of time in this country that is less than available to Westerners.  The difference this time around is that he is accompanied by his wife Nadège, and his infant son Louis, and this time he is not there for his work, but for his wife’s.  She is a doctor with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which was hoping at the time to be able to open up avenues for treatment for some of Burma’s indigent and discriminated against minorities, in areas of unrest.

Delisle is basically along for the ride in this book, sticking around first a guest house and then a rented home borrowed from the project leader, looking after Louis.  This also means he has much more time to explore, and we are treated to his observations and thoughts on life in Rangoon under the military junta.  And it seems like Rangoon is a pretty strange place.  There is a high degree of government control, although it’s quite subtle and much of it escapes notice.

Delisle ends up doing a number of touristic things – trying to see the home where Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated dissident has been confined for decades, taking part in a monastic retreat, and visiting various ex-pat institutions to hang out.  He also tries to get to know his neighbours, and runs an animation class for a few interested locals.

The book is filled with his usual humour and sometime bumbling awkwardness, and is quite charming throughout.  The book is divided into short strips that never last more than a few pages, but which, when read as a whole, provide a detailed mosaic of life in one of the least understood countries on the planet (at least to Western readers).

Jonah Hex: No Way Back

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art by Tony DeZuniga

I’m pretty sure that, had someone not decided to make a Jonah Hex movie (which is a pretty odd decision, all things considered), this graphic novel would not exist.  I imagine that the same thinking that currently has Marvel pumping out something like six Thor books a month was at work here – the belief that throngs of people would leave the Jonah Hex movie and head directly to their closest comic store (or large, soulless chain book store), and demand as much Hex as they can get their hands on.  And, of course, the excellent run of trades collecting Palmiotti and Gray’s excellent monthly series wouldn’t be enough, so they needed to get a new hardcover out there.

Does that ever work?  I’d be curious to hear from retailers about this phenomenon, and if flooding the market with new material attracts new customers or just confuses them into beating a hasty retreat.

Anyway, the book deserves to be examined on its own merits, and not just as an example of a questionable business practice.  Because it’s a good book.  But then, of course it is.  Palmiotti and Gray consistently do good work with Jonah Hex (although I think they’ve had more off-months than on lately), and the art is by Tony DeZuniga, a DC legend.  The story involves Hex’s mother, who had abandoned him as a small child, and the quest for revenge of El Papagayo, the always-funny Mexican villain who rides after Hex with a parrot on his arm.  DeZuniga’s art is the same as always – terrific, if a little too scratchy in places.

I liked the book, but can’t help but think that it would have worked just as well as a three-part arc on the regular series.  There was no real reason for this to get a hardcover treatment, aside from the movie.  But, if you like Jonah Hex, this is a great example of what the book is like when it is at its best.

Lucifer Vol. 9: Crux

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Marc Hempel, Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, and Ronald Wimberly

I started reading this book feeling a little bored with Lucifer in general.  I didn’t enjoy volume 8 with the same degree that I did the earlier books, and didn’t really feel like reading this.  I’m glad I stuck with it though, because this volume returns the book to the high quality of the beginning of the series.

This volume jumps around a fair deal.  The first story (with art by Marc Hempel, an artist we don’t see enough of these days) is set in Hell, and has Christopher Rudd serving in a messianic role.  In fact, the story ends with him in a new, elevated station in Hell.

From there, we get to the main storyline of the book – the return of Lilith, as seen at the end of Volume 7.  We learn where she’s been for the last few millennia, as she starts to plot against Heaven.  She’s not happy with Mazikeen, for whom things go bad quickly.  Between these chapters is a story where Elaine Belloc, absorbing Michael’s abilities, creates her own universe, and then tries to watch over it.  As well, we see more of Jill Presto, who is again pregnant from the Basanos.

There is definitely a feeling throughout this book that the story is coming to its close (two more volumes remain), and Carey is slowly ratcheting up the level of suspense and weight of events.  The strength of this book lies in its supporting characters – Elaine, Jill, and of course Mazikeen, and so the fact that Lucifer barely appears in this book is not a problem.

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965

by Joe Kubert

There was a point early into this book where I feared I’d made a mistake in starting to read it.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me – I love war comics, often feel the lack of good comics set in the Vietnam War, and I have the utmost respect for Joe Kubert.  What could go wrong?

The problem is that the book looks just like the cover.  Kubert didn’t exactly finish his pencils, eschewed a panel grid in favour of having two or three illustrations spread across the page, and decided to print the book on the same grey paper you see on the cover.  All of that I could get past, except I found the writing at the beginning to be painfully amateurish, as he tried (not too hard) to establish some of the characters that made up Special Forces team A-313, without explaining much context for their mission, which at the beginning, involved training and supporting a variety of local forces in a remote outpost near the Cambodian border.

Now, I’m very willing to cut someone with Kubert’s street cred a ton of slack, and I’m quite glad I did.  After the men of A-313 get transferred to Dong Xoai, and get their name changed to A-342 (does this have significance?  It gets mentioned a lot), the book seriously picks up.  Basically, these guys are in a poorly-defended base, filled with ARVN, Saigon ‘Cowboy’, Montagnard, and Cambodian forces.  They quickly realize that they face an invasion by VC and NVA forces, and rush to fortify their position.

When the attack comes, the book becomes pretty gripping, as Kubert shows time and again the resourcefulness and tenacity of the American forces (A-342 was joined by a small contingent of Seabees before the attack).

This book is based on the actual events that took place in Dong Xoai, and when one reads the lengthy notes and accounting of the battle provided by the surviving Marines (which takes up like 20 pages of minutely detailed writing), it becomes hard to see where things are fictionalized, aside from the changed names of our heroes.  Instead, Kubert has created a serious and accurate piece of war history, and his book stands as a strong testament to the bravery of the men involved.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with this book.  Was the battle at Dong Xoai important to anyone beyond the men who were there?  Was this an important turning point in the war, or a watershed moment that led to stronger US involvement in Vietnam?  I feel like I could have really used a little more context to put these events in perspective.  Don’t get me wrong, the battle makes a very good story; the historian in me needs more guidance in interpreting its importance.

Album of the Week:

Madlib Medicine Show No. 7 – High Jazz

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