The Weekly Round-Up #82 With Scalped, American Vampire, Skullkickers, Walking Dead & More

This week’s pile of DC books are pretty much the best argument I’ve seen for not doing this whole re-launch thing.  Look at how good these titles are – nothing needs to be changed; DC’s other books just need to get this good (please note – I’m not talking about Justice Society of America, sadly, when I say this).

Best Comic of the Week:

Scalped #50

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by RM Guera, Igor Kordey, Tim Truman, Jill Thomspon, Jordi Bernet, Denys Cowan, Dean Haspiel, Brendan McCarthy, and Steve Dillon

For as long as I’ve been writing about comics on the Internet, I’ve been hoping to draw new readers to Scalped (it was the first comic I ever reviewed).  I have been, on a monthly basis, blown away by the quality of this comic, and it is something that I think most comics readers would appreciate if they gave it a chance.  One hurdle, though, has been accessibility.  Scalped is a sprawling, complex story that, had a new reader not started at the beginning, it would be difficult to follow.

This fiftieth anniversary issue (and congratulations – that kind of number is amazing for a book like Scalped in today’s market) is a perfect sampler for a new reader to get a sense of what this book is all about.  The issue opens with a father and son scalping a Sioux man in Montana in 1876.  The father, from a long line of ‘Indian hunters’ is passing on the finer points of scalping to his son, and shares with him their family’s story, which is basically the story of the worst aspects of American history.  Things soon shift to a Sioux father and son, whose actions and lives parallel that of the Americans’.  The Sioux son’s name is His Many Bad Horses, a name with great resonance for readers of Scalped.

Later, we see Bad Horses as a man, brought to the Prairie Rose reservation in 1889 by government soldiers, after being one of the last hold-outs among his people.  Once there, he has a vision which is shown in a series of splash pages, each drawn by a different artist.  The narration of these pages reads like a tone poem, giving a new reader everything they would need to know about Scalped in terms of its atmosphere, while rewarding long-time readers with a new perspective or way of looking at most of the central characters.

It’s interesting to read Scalped as a book about hope and resistance.  So often, the title feels to be more about despair, acceptance, and defeat.  Aaron is a subtle and gifted writer, and I found it awesome to see so many different artists provide their interpretations of things.  The best sequence in the book belongs to regular series artist RM Guera however, as he hand-letters his pages, and makes the old Wild West look as dirty and sad as it really was.

I also appreciate the way that Jill Thompson snuck the Beasts of Burden into the book too.

Other Notable Comics:

American Vampire #16

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Rafael Albuquerque

This current arc, Ghost War, set during the Second World War, has been great.  Henry, Pearl’s husband, has joined a group of soldiers from the Vassals of the Morning Star on a mission to Taipan to investigate reports of indigenous vampires.  Now the unit has been captured by the Japanese, and are being used as part of a strange experiment.

Skinner Sweet, the vampire that turned Pearl, has tagged along with the group, disguised as a normal soldier.  As it turns out, Henry has seen through his subterfuge, and proposes using Skinner to help them effect their escape.  While this is going on, Pearl has arrived on Taipan herself, looking to warn Henry of Skinner’s presence.

This arc is tightly plotted, and Snyder is doing a fine job of using the Vassals to help propel the story.  I like how, even as they are being killed off, their characters are being developed, making them seem like they are not the cannon fodder I first assumed they would be.

Take Snyder’s fine writing (this guy can do no wrong these days, prompting me to be excited about the Swamp Thing relaunch) and add to it Albuquerque’s amazing art, and there is no wondering why I am enjoying this book so much.  Great stuff.

Feeding Ground #5

Written by Swifty Lang
Art by Michael Lapinski

I was very happy to see another issue of this cool werewolf/illegal migration story, especially since the creator seemed to use the gap between issues to really perfect their craft; this is the clearest issue of the book so far in terms of storytelling.

Feeding Ground is about a family that works to help migrants cross into America from Mexico, and the paramilitary organization that operates in the area and is a front for a werewolf pack (would that be the right term?).  This issue has the family separated, as Flaca, the young daughter who has been infected and turned, is taken to the Blackwell compound, while her mother and brother continue their crossing after being helped by the Border Patrol agents who survived the werewolf attack with them.

Miguel, the main character of the book, is having a much rougher go than the rest, as he continues to cross through the desert on foot.  He’s pretty delirious, and Lang and Lapinski make good use of the comics medium to show us things from his perspective.  It’s a pretty trippy scene, and I thought it worked quite well.

This has been an interesting series, as it attempts to recast a typical horror set-up in a setting with political and social relevance.  It’s pretty cool, and I like that they include a Spanish version of the comic on the flip-side for no extra cost.

The Secret History Book Fifteen: The Amber Room

Written by Jean-Pierre Pécau
Art by Igor Kordey

Okay, is it a cash flow problem at Archaia that causes their translated, previously published books to be so late?  It’s been ages since we’ve last seen an issue of The Secret History, and watch – there’s going to be another one in two weeks or so; there would pretty much have to be, if they plan on catching up with their publication schedule, as they still solicit this book like it’s a monthly, even though they are about six months behind schedule.

Anyway, it’s The Secret History.  It’s always good, if pretty confusing.  This issue is concerned with the beginnings of the Cold War, as the American and Soviet occupying forces continue to try to extract as many powerful artifacts out of Germany as they can.  This time around, the object of desire is an ‘amber room’, which does some stuff I didn’t fully understand.  Among the players in this issue are a group of Jewish partisans who walked across Nazi Germany, fighting for their lives the whole way.

As always, Pécau does an incredible job of weaving his fictional world into our historical record, and Kordey continues to draw the hell out of the book.  I do wish that the pace would pick up a little, but I enjoy reading this series (when it’s published).

The Sixth Gun #12

Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Brian Hurtt

The Sixth Gun is one of the best independent comics on the stands these days.  With this issue, the series embarks on its third story arc, ‘Bound’.  In this issue, which is an excellent jumping-on point for new readers, the widow of General Hume, the main villain of the first arc, makes her reappearance.  She is trying to track down our heroes, Drake Sinclair and Becky Montcrief, who between them possess five of the six guns.  She has information that they are traveling by train, with the guns and with the remains of her husband.  She sends an agent to deal with them, and he reanimates a local gang of train robbers to do the job.

This issue is nicely balanced between the action sequences with the corpses attacking the train and some quieter scenes involving Sinclair, Becky, and the Sword of Abraham leader Brother Roberto.  We still don’t know much about this organization of weapon-wielding priests who have such an interest in the guns, and I hope we learn more as this arc progresses.

As always, The Sixth Gun is a nice blend of Western and occult, with terrific art and strong characterizations.  As this is such a good place to jump onto the story, I suggest you give it a try if you aren’t already reading it.

Skullkickers #8

Written by Jim Zubkavich
Art by Edwin Huang

‘Five Funerals & a Bucket of Blood’ continues, after the first of the titular funerals, with the pursuit of our two heroes, after they were mistakenly accused of massacring a group of nobles last issue.  The duo want to retrieve their possessions, especially Baldy’s gun, but since their lodgings are full of local guards, they concoct a plan to wait until nightfall, find the city’s nest of thieves and lowlifes, and get help.

The plan works about as well as all of their plans do, with very funny consequences.  First, they can’t find any lowlifes, and so try to get robbed themselves.  From there, things go even worse for them.  At the same time, the guards have found Baldy’s gun, but since it appears to be the only one of its kind in the Skullkicker-verse, they are surprised when they start shooting themselves with it.

Zubkavich’s writing in this title is very funny.  Huang’s art has grown on me with each issue, and I now consider myself a fan of his.  I don’t normally enjoy books like this, but I’ve become very enamored of this title.

The Walking Dead #86

Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

I don’t remember the last time I read such an optimistic issue of The Walking Dead.  Rick still doesn’t know what’s going to happen with Carl (is it okay to talk about this yet?), but he has a new-found sense of hope for the future that has been building for the last couple of issues, and really seems to blossom this month.

Really, not a whole lot happens this issue, but it is very nice to see Rick, Andrea, and the others making plans to fortify their community, and make it someplace that they can turn into a bastion of civilization, instead of just a safe haven for a limited time.

Kirkman has such a good handle on these characters.  I particularly love how he writes the two central women in this book, Andrea and Michonne.  Andrea has become a strong person as she has progressed through the last eighty-odd issues, and we see that now in the way that others look up to her and admire both her toughness and her marksmanship.  Michonne, meanwhile, has started to soften and actually care about the people around her.

This is such a consistently remarkable book.  This month, on the flip-side, we get a reprint of the recent Elephantmen: Man and Elephantmen one-shot, which is also pretty good reading (reviewed here).

Witch Doctor #1

Written by Brandon Seifert
Art by Lukas Ketner

I wasn’t originally going to give this series a try, mostly because the cover to this first issue didn’t appeal to me, but after reading the preview zero issue in last month’s issue of Walking Dead, I changed my mind.

Witch Doctor is a mash-up of Dr. Strange, Jeff Parker’s Mysterius the Unfathomable, and the TV show House, M.D. Doctor Morrow is Earth’s Witch Doctor; the person charged with defending humanity from supernatural diseases and infections.  In the preview issue, he explored the medical origins of vampirism, discovering that vampires are just aggressive parasitoids that inhabit their victims.

In this issue, Dr. Morrow confronts a rare and complicated case of parasitic diabolis, which in layman’s terms, is demonic possession.  Dr. Morrow has a bleak and ineffective bedside manner, as evidenced by the way in which, in outlining his course of treatment, he ends up chasing away the parents of his patient.

This is a pretty creative and unique comic.  It’s clear that Siefert has spent more time thinking about the medical implications of the supernatural, and everything in this comic, while completely fantastical, has an internal logic behind it that makes things credible.  His work on developing these characters is strong too.

Ketner’s art reminds me a little of Neal Adams, and he’s clearly having a blast designing the strange apparatus and devices that Morrow uses.  I’m definitely on board with this series now.

Xombi #4

Written by John Rozum
Art by Frazier Irving

I’m very bummed out by the fact that Xombi is not going to survive the DC Relaunch.  This is by far the best superhero-ish comic that DC is producing, and the way that John Rozum is laying groundwork to re-establish David Kim’s world, has the most potential for years of interesting stories.

This issue is almost all talk, as Annie, the woman who had freed a monster in previous issues, explains her life story, and how she has come to be both a tool for Roland Finch, and the best hope for defeating him.  She tells of twenty-seven floating strongholds, like the one she was born on, populated by immortals with advanced scientific and artistic knowledge.  Finch has taken over Annie’s home stronghold, with her unwilling assistance, and now has a chart which will lead him to all of the others.  Kim (the Xombi) and his crew of super-powered nuns and large golem are going to try to stop him.

While most of this issue consists of Annie’s narrative, Rozum still squeezes in some nice character moments, and helps build on what has to be the most interesting and original supporting cast in comics.  Frazier Irving’s work is always genius, and he continues to please as he designs the unique looks of a few of the strongholds.

I really wish this title was going to last longer.

Quick Takes:

Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #6 – I’m not sure why Marvel is letting Heinberg make some big changes to the Marvel Universe in this book, unless we’re going to eventually find out that the whole thing is happening on an alternate Earth (which will explain all the continuity issues surrounding Captain America and Iron Man, not to mention the fact that Jessica Jones is friends with Scott Lang).  Still, the story is quite readable, and Jim Cheung’s work looks great.

Batman Incorporated #7 – At some point in the future, comics historians are going to point to the interruption and editorial interference of the DC Relaunch on Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated as the biggest mistake of the 2010s.  This title is brilliant, and this has to be the best issue yet.  Man-of-Bats, the Lakota Batman, runs into Leviathan in the small reserve town that he polices.  Man-0f-Bats is the perfect example of the Batman concept as it can be enacted on small budget; the equivalent of locavore superheroics.  Brilliant writing.  Also, I love Chris Burnham’s art on this title.

Butcher Baker The Righteous Maker #4 – I’m really enjoying Casey and Huddleston’s work on the patriotic hero type, as three of Butcher’s enemies catch up to him, and Arnie P. Willard, the cop he pissed off in the first issue, is on his trail.  There’s also a nice flashback to Butcher’s contribution to Desert Storm.  Huddleston is doing some amazing work – check out the last page – and Casey is having a lot of fun.  As always, the text piece is as good as the comic.  This month Casey writes about Neal Adams’s belief in cosmic growth, and shares his musings on the disposability of comics as an art medium.

Detective Comics #878 – Snyder’s doing some very cool stuff with this book.  On the one hand, he’s got Batman caught up in an insane mystery involving killer whales and a modern-day pirate unlike any other we’ve seen before, and on the other, he’s carefully constructed this quiet and creepy story around Jim Gordon Jr. that has some real surprises.  I’m glad that Snyder gets to stay on a Bat-book after the relaunch, but I would so prefer to see him continue working with Dick as Batman, and Jock and Francisco Francavilla on art than have him write Bruce Wayne with Greg Capullo.

FF#5 – FF has been remarkably consistent, as Jonathan Hickman keeps moving his story along at a decent pace, but also provides most of the principal characters (and this book has a lot of them now) a moment or two of their own.  Barry Kitson is a good artist for this book.  The ending features the appearance of a character who has been pretty dead for a few years, and I think it was a mistake to bring him back.  I can’t discuss it without spoiling the book though.

Flashpoint: Project Superman #1 – Even though I’m mostly skipping Flashpoint, this is co-written by Scott Snyder, and has art by Gene Ha, so I wanted it.  Snyder and other writer Lowell Harris (who?) have an interesting take on Superman as a government-created super soldier, more in a Captain America vein, but with more abilities.  He’s feeling under-utilized, and has some kind of daddy complex issue around General Lane; not much happens in this issue, but there is an interesting event at the very end that makes me question just where this title is headed.  Good stuff, but I found that Gene Ha seems to be drawing like he’s Howard Chaykin, and that’s not a good thing.

Justice Society of America #52 – So you have some 25 people on your team now, and when you find a great big door deep under the Earth, you call in the Challengers of the Unknown before bringing in some of your heavier hitters?  Meanwhile, the newly Forrest Gump’ed Mister Terrific doesn’t tell anyone that he’s lost his intellect, and investigates on his own?  I remember when the operative word for this book was ‘Society’.  Basically, this arc is telling me two things:  that Marc Guggenheim does better on his own books (bring back Resurrection!), and that I should know better than to buy a comic with Tom Derenick’s name on it.

THUNDER Agents #8 – This is one of the better books that DC publishes, with three different stories in this issue; a modern-day sequence interwoven with one set in the 80s (drawn by Mike Grell), and a back-up set in the 60s with art by Nick Dragotta.  My only complaint is that I don’t like Dan Panosian on the main story; Cafu and Bit were killing this book, and I hope they come back soon.  I’m pleased to hear that this comic is going to survive the relaunch, and is just on a hiatus.

Uncanny X-Men #539 – Kieron Gillen gives us an interesting Hope and Wolverine story with this issue, and I like how he explores their relationship.  The problem with this comic lies in its premise – why would the Crimson Commando need to kidnap Hope to get her to help him – I’m sure he could just go to Utopia and ask – he has a better relationship with the team than Magneto, and they made him a central member.  Very nice art by Ibraim Roberson.

Venom #4 – Remender and Moore have hit a good groove with this title.  I like how Flash Thompson is making some uncharacteristic decisions because he doesn’t want to lose the freedom and mobility the Venom symbiote gives him, even though keeping the suit puts everyone he loves in great danger.  I think that I’m going to be adding this title to my pull-list now.

X-Men: Prelude to Schism #4 – I’m mad at myself for getting sucked into buying this thing.  This issue basically repeats dialogue from the last three, while showing us scenes from Barry Windsor-Smith’s wonderful Weapon X story, and Jenkins and Kuberts’ not so wonderful Origins mini-series.  I can just tell that this isn’t going to match up to Schism at all.  I wish Marvel would stop with the blatant cash grabs.

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

Amazing Spider-Man #664

Fear Itself: Black Widow #1

Incorruptible #19

Incredible Hulks Annual #1

Bargain Comics:

Amazing Spider-Man #659 I’m only going to buy Amazing Spider-Man when I can get it for a reduction on the cover price (unless Marcos Martin or Javier Pulido are drawing it).  I like what Dan Slott’s doing on the book, but I haven’t felt the need to buy every issue.  This issue is another fun story guest-starring the FF, and is full of zombie pirates.  Great, funny dialogue almost makes up for the god-awful Spider-Man/Ghost Rider back-up that guarantees I will not be sampling the new Ghost Rider series.

Amazing Spider-Man #661 & 662 – Christos Gage came on board for a two-part Avengers Academy story that hopefully found that title a few new readers.  Spider-Man supply teaches, but class is interrupted by the Psycho-Man, always a strange villain, but useful if a writer wants to explore a character’s doubts and fears (which is pretty much what every writer on Spider-Man wants to do to some extent).  Good stuff, as is always the case from Gage.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1 – Being a fan of both John Layman (Chew)  and Alberto Ponticelli (The Unknown Soldier), I figured I could easily overlook the fact that this is a Godzilla comic, and give it a chance (the Geof Darrow cover helped there too).  It’s a decent enough comic about a Tokyo police man escaping the clutches of gangsters, to end up on Monster Island (I just don’t know why they would take him there to kill him).  It was over pretty quickly though; I’m not sure if I’ll hunt down the rest of the series.

The Week in Graphic Novels:

Blokhedz Vol. 1: Genesis

Written by Mark Davis, Mike Davis, and Brandon Schultz
Art by Mark Davis

I started picking up the Blokhedz mini-series when it debuted back in 2004.  I’ve long felt that there is nowhere near enough hip-hop in comics (and no, I’m not counting the garbage put out under Wu-Tang Clan’s imprimatur) and I wanted to support this book.  The only problem was that it was hella difficult to find, and I never did get a hold of the final issue.  Even though this trade was published a while ago, I only just found it recently, and was happy to finally take this book off my list.

Blokhedz is about Blak, a teenager with lyrical skills, who is growing up in Empire City.  Picture Gotham City, if the entire place was housing projects, and you’d get an idea of what Empire looks like.  He wants to become a famous rapper, and struggles with wanting to remain true to his conscious roots, and taking the commercial route and glorifying his brother Konzaquence’s past misdeeds.  Blak gets into conflict with Vulture, the local king of hip-hop (who looks a lot like Ja Rule), his brother is killed, and the story starts meandering all over the place, involving some super abilities, a lion medallion, and the spiritual influence of Empire City’s projects being built over Aboriginal graves.

In other words, the book suffers from too many ideas being crammed into too short a space.  The first issue is terrific at establishing Blak’s character and his inner conflict, but from there, the trio of writers lose focus.  There are too many elements introduced that don’t really work – the police officer with a cyborg arm, the motorized tricycle chase scene, and the demonic record company executive just get in the way of what could have been a very good little comic.

I don’t know if the Davis brothers have written any other comics since Blokhedz.  If they have, I’ve never laid eyes on it, which is too bad, because they are very talented.  With a strong editor, this could have been a very good book.

Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart, and Michael Allred

Somehow Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman escaped my notice when it originally was published, and I’ve only now gotten around to looking for any of the trades, starting with this first one.

Really, I missed out on something very good, as Brubaker is joined by the always-brilliant Darwyn Cooke, who was in turn inked by two artists who are better known as pencilers – Michael Allred and Cameron Stewart.

The book opens with a four-part Slam Bradley story that was originally used as a back-up in Detective Comics.  Bradley’s been hired to prove that Catwoman is still alive, and he investigates the mysterious death of Selina Kyle as part of his search, not knowing that the two women are one and the same.  This story was alright, but ultimately reminded me of something I’ve read before, although I’m not sure where (I suppose it’s possible I read the original comics, but I would have to check to see if I own them).

After that, we get the first four issues of the newly-relaunched Catwoman series (circa 2001).  Selina comes out of retirement when she learns that someone is killing prostitutes in Gotham City.  She hunts down the perpetrator, although things are not what she expected, and the guy is not a garden-variety psychopath.

The story is well-told, but the real star of the show is Darwyn Cooke, and his unique way of setting up pages of story.  The art in this book is incredible, as it always is with Cooke’s work.  Now I need to find the rest of Brubaker’s run, because I like his take on Catwoman as someone who wants to do good, but will use whatever means she deems necessary.  I also like the way Brubaker uses Dr. Leslie Thompkins in this comic; she’s an under-utilized character.

Album of the Week:

True Soul Vol. 1 – Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax

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