Saturday, June 17, 2017

Discipline #1-6

Originally planned as a Vertigo title, the controversial "Discipline" pairs veteran writer Peter Milligan with the imprint's longtime artist and former collaborator Leandro Fernandez. With the series eventually seeing publication at Image, the whole production seems riskier than it would likely have been had the title saw print as initially announced.

At its heart, "Discipline" is an erotic thriller that bills itself as a supernatural coming of age story. It follows a young woman whose longings for escape from a passionless marriage make her a target for seduction by a sect of centuries-old sexual predators. Mellisa has little time to get used to the idea when the organization's natural enemies make her a target. 

And while the basic setup seems immediately familiar, the character's coming to grips with the dangerous new world is genuinely gripping thanks to the creators' efforts. The lithe, whipsmart Mellisa could have easily come off as condescending considering her station in life, but by defining her by her limitations, Milligan and Fernandez turn her into a compelling protagonist. By not immediately losing sight of her life and family once she comes in contact with the mythology they have created, the creators make her all the more believable.

Indeed, despite featuring Mellisa in all sorts of undress, she loses none of her appeal, as her sexual awakening is part and parcel of the coming of age aspect that works in concert with the genre elements. Thus, working in reverse of a traditional superhero narrative, "Discipline" commits to both sides of the adult equation. Having the characters actually engage in sexual activity that is graphic but never gratuitous works to make the story live up to the billing of an erotic thriller. Sexuality in "Discipline" is intriguing and dangerous, but it's also at times humorous and ironic, with the creators' status as veterans in the field enabling them to imbue their story with the appropriate wit and sophistication. 

Fernandez' fluid cartooning keeps up the pace throughout even when his designs for the supernatural aspects of the Discipline and their enemies might take some getting used to. The organization is sketched out in broad terms as a secret society that the creators can't help but tie to major historical figures. Thus, an extended flashback sequence set in ancient Rome features in the follow-up story featuring Mellisa going on her first solo mission in Eternal city. Unfortunately, having a break in publication with the artist continuing to work for the publisher on another title means that the readers have yet to see a definite announcement concerning the title's continuation.

On the strength of these initial six issues, it's clear that Image has grown past a superhero publisher to support a series that acts as a more mature take on "Witchblade". It's another matter entirely whether it will end up supporting "Discipline" until the title connects with it's intended audience. The extended delay may signal that the publisher is considering how to proceed with the property, and hopefully this won't be the last we see of the intriguing characters and set-up behind Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez' creation.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Loose Ends 1-4

This last Wednesday has seen the long-awaited final chapter of the "Loose ends" project, initially published to some acclaim in 2011. For the last several months, Image has reissued the Jason Latour/Chris Brunner collaboration, having finally completed the series in time for the July publication of the trade paperback collection.

At its heart, "Loose ends" is a strong early work in the neo-noir tradition, featuring a cast of broken people on all sides of a drug deal gone bad. The largely self-contained first issue introduces the sweaty, hungover people dreaming of a better life and finding only violence all around them.

As the series widens its scope, the debut issue's local thug gets replaced by his dead-ringer, a police officer helping his partner exploit the dual leads' drug connection. Of the two, the creators spend more time with Sonny, while his friend and fellow ex-soldier Rej serves more as the plot instigator.

Following the initial cliffhanger, Sonny is on the run with a girl from his past, which in Brunner's hands quickly devolves into a frantic drug binge amidst the hot neon colored Florida. Each subsequent issue sports character defining monochromatic flashbacks, with colorist Renzi completing the aesthetic. Despite its focus on the characters, the well paced series quickly builds to its action filled conclusion, where the principal cast has one final chance to escape their past and the predators looking to feed upon them.

By publishing the years in the making final issue, the creators have ensured that the audience gets a chance to enjoy the full scope of their deeply personal collaboration. Latour has already proven himself a solid mainstream comics addition as both a writer and artist, but hopefully the collected edition of "Loose ends" will lead to more comic assignments for Brunner, a natural storyteller who definitely has a place in the industry.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mayday 1-5

On May 24th, Image is issuing the collection of "Mayday", the just concluded Alex de Campi and Tony Parker mini-series, featuring a pair of Russian spies on the run in 1971 America. Labelled as a Codename Felix adventure, the book is slated to be the opening storyline in a series featuring the Cold War adventures with a realistic bent.

The veteran writer has made a name for herself in the industry with the spy-inspired "Smoke", and "Mayday" certainly starts off with an intelligence agency briefing before it veers off into the strange and poignant. By the end of the first issue, the protagonists' extraction mission has been firmly charted through America's counter culture underbelly, with the creators making it clear that both will stay on as a part of the story. Thus, the numerous office-based scenes don't serve only as framing devices, but the agency infighting actively acts to heighten the drama. 

Thanks to Parker's contribution, these dialogue intense sequences flow well and feature distinctive character designs. The artist of "This damned band" is certainly at home when the story switches to the wild world of sweaty, Vietnam era America. Only in "Mayday", the sex and drugs and rock'n'roll gets seen from the eyes of the outsiders and punctured with horrible violence, showcasing his clean and dynamic work.

The 45 year distance allows the creators to present the Russian spies in a more balanced way, with danger coming to them from both sides. The writer is clever to portray them as victims but never shies away from the hurt they inflict back on their new surroundings. Of the two, Felix is decidedly the more active participant, with this initial series serving to set the stage for his further Cold War adventures. On the strength of "Mayday", the readers can only hope that de Campi and Parker will continue on as a team long enough to tell them.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ultimate Comics: Thor

"Ultimate Comics: Thor" marked writer Jonathan Hickman's first foray into Marvel's once relevant Ultimate imprint. It lead to his taking over the core "Ultimates" title and giving him a chance to be one of the last authors that truly defined the since cancelled line of comics.

Pairing Hickman with a veteran superhero artist like Carlos Pacheco, the company seemed adamant that he starts working off Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's template. Only a year before, the penciller collaborated with Millar himself on a spin-off Ultimates mini-series that ended up as some of the writer's last work for the company. On "Ultimate Comics: Thor", Pacheco manages to work in Hitch's vein, which helps when the story constantly calls back to the celebrated artist's genre defining run. 

Without being able to actually relaunch Thor in his image, the writer is thus poised to fit his story around previous continuity, resulting in a splintered timeline that gives rise to only slight innovation. The Asgard flashbacks are perhaps most noteworthy, setting up this creative team's version of the Warrior's Three. The origin story eventually ties in to the World War Two scenes featuring Baron Zemo, with the present day sequences serving as framework.

Throughout, Pacheco's clean layouts and solid figurework help maintain the brisk pace and create strong fight sequences featuring the Frost Giants. These keep the mini-series on level with some of the imprint's more workmanlike entries, but the hurried last act prevents it from being more than a prequel to the original "Ultimates" run. By relegating the present day showdown with Loki to the previous series, "Ultimate Comics: Thor" gains a barrage of scenes featuring Nick Fury and eventually the Hulk, which genuinely rob this story of its real conclusion. Eventually, both Hickman and Pacheco end up restaging Millar and Hitch's sequences with added context, which speaks a lot to the publisher's lack of confidence in their own creative abilities. 

On the back of this story, the writer has gone on to have his own critically acclaimed run on "The Ultimates", but unfortunately it wasn't popular enough to save the imprint from swift cancellation. Still, it paved the way for his work on Marvel's mainstream "Avengers" titles, with Hickman eventually helping the publisher relaunch their entire superhero line, where Pacheco has remained a valuable asset.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Catwoman: When in Rome 1-6

In 2004, DC published "Catwoman: When in Rome", acting as a spin-off of the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's popular "Batman: Dark victory" storyline. Released following the duo's stint on Marvel's prestige books, the mini-series acknowledges the tie-in, but exists largely to tell it's own story.

Ostensibly, the series elaborates the character's origins, but by the time of it's publication the company had already went ahead with a different version of the character. Taken as a collaboration of the two talents well suited to telling the stories together, "When in Rome" turns into a treatise on the character's appeal.

Characterized as a sexy thriller with a healthy dose of humor, the series truly reads like an artifact from a different era. The heroine looks and acts like a sex bomb, her "costume" merely a couple of curios added to her skintight leotard. That is not to say that Catwoman doesn't spent a large part of the story wearing even less, but she takes it all in stride.

The plot concerns Selina arriving in Italy with a purpose that reveals itself only later on, after she has already become complicit in affairs of a criminal don she'd never heard about before. The tone and atmosphere are seductive enough that the reader doesn't really question the many twists and turns rocking the story to and fro from the Batman universe, confident that it will all make some kind of sense in the end. Loeb is of course pedantic enough to ultimately clear up any confusion, but it's Sale's work that leaves the lasting impression.

The whole presentation strikes the reader as very visual and gorgeous to experience, with beautiful ink washes by Dave Stewart making for a spin-off that has all the hallmarks of a major publishing project. Putting Catwoman in an idealized Italian setting, the artist pairs her with contrasting figures of a love interest and a comedic foil. It is the original character that proves the more memorable, as the Riddler's role in the story ultimately feels as shoehorned as most of the other plot elements pertaining to the story's status as a Batman spin-off.

What attracts about "When in Rome" is precisely the chance of watching two acclaimed creators enjoying themselves. Reading this well paced, politically incorrect story it's clear that the duo are having fun which has the effect of charming the reader into accepting both the goofy and the intriguing bits.

It might be a footnote in the duo's opus, but Loeb and Sale's work here should absolutely be taken into consideration by a reader looking for a lighthearted DC story with high production values.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best comics of 2016

Another rare update that proves that I have not given up on the blog and comics themselves, despite the lack of activity here. I have changed some of the categories to better express the things in comics that I actually enjoyed reading this year. The entries are provided with general commentary regarding the makeup of the specific parts of the industry they are born of.

Best Writer - Nick Spencer

The year started by my getting better acquainted with Nick Spencer's work, which I rediscovered spurred by Marvel's promotion around his stint on "Captain America". The lackluster "Standoff" event notwithstanding, his stylish and meticulous work has finally managed to marry the potential shown in "The Superior Foes of Spider-Man" with some of the company's longest running characters resulting in controversial stories read by the largest audience he has enjoyed to date.

Despite his "Ant Man" run fizzling out before reaching its full potential, the maniacal glee of his early work can still be encountered unfiltered in "The Fix", an even more organic follow up to his and Steve Lieber's celebrated collaboration.
Best Artist - John Romita Jr.

With the bulk of the promotion of DC's newest makeover going to other titles, the "All Star Batman" book has still managed to carve a large place for itself. Primarily designed to feature the former hit "Batman" scribe Scott Snyder's exploration of the Dark Knight's villains, the comic has debuted as a fun high octane book that balances the gritty themes with colorful action.

The primary reason for the title's warm welcome has had to do with the strong storytelling brought on by penciler John Romita jr. The veteran artist approached the title with a highly accomplished sense of craftsmanship, honed by decades working on Marvel's top superheroes. In doing so, he has managed to temper some of the writer's overpowering literary tendencies into a very visual story that keeps the reader on the lookout for the next well realized action set piece.

Best Ongoing Title - Injection

When it comes to highly publicized Image titles, Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey's "Injection" is the first one that comes to mind that hasn't been hurt either by delays or the general lack of direction that has plagued much of their line. The writer's other ongoing series "Trees" has been the victim of many of the problems suffered by the publisher's hit titles after their initial wave of excitement had worn off.

Having completed its second storyline, "Injection" remains every bit as sharp and enigmatic. Wisely choosing to focus on a single member of the scientific team that introduced the titular Injection to the larger world, the writer brandishes his modern day Sherlock Holmes with his typical kinky flourishes. Shalvey on the other hand continues to live up to his reputation as a powerhouse new creator, with a sharp line that is both expressive and wonderfully conductive to partner Jordan Bellaire's wonderful coloring.

Hopefully, the series will continue with a strong sense of its own identity, providing both creators the chance to play in their world while finding interesting ways to bring the innovative science fictional concepts to their eager audience.

Best Mini-Series - Vision

Initially designed as an ongoing series, "Vision" was forced to confirm to the maxi-series model once it's star writer had signed an exclusive agreement with DC comics. Still, it can be said that this approach forced the story Tom King was telling with Gabriel Hernandez Walta into a more compact yet still powerful parable.

The genre of robot science fiction still remains popular thanks to "Westworld" tv-series and the upcoming "Blade Runner" sequel, but where this series differed was in the way it managed to blend the idiosyncrasies of "American Beauty" with a story of a Marvel mainstay that has long since lost his appeal as an edgy new superhero character.

Introduced as a tragedy with a wide scope of destruction in Washington DC, the eventual series has notably endured a somewhat paired down conclusion, that has still managed to bring its plot to a memorable close. Marvel would do well not to shy away from commissioning critically acclaimed work along these lines, titles that will stand the test of time and live on past the continual renumberings and shifts in the house style.

Best Collected Edition - Last Look

Having encountered only the first part of Charles Burns' latest trilogy when it was released, I have delayed returning to it well past the the series conclusion. With the publicized debut of the long awaited collected edition, I have finally returned to the accomplished storyteller's latest opus and given it another try.

Read as a three-part story, "Last Look" functions on multiple levels along the lines of a David Lynch movie, with a surreal parallel running next to the relatively mundane plot involving a teenage romance gone wrong. Some of the phantasmagorical images fuel the the nightmarish feeling of love lost, but most of the time the book works just as well when it deals directly with the wasted potential of it's protagonist.

Burns' full color work in "Last Look", styled in homage to an Herge album works in an experimental way that shows the complex makeup of his character's tortured psyche. By utilizing all of his talent to bend the form to suit his story, the veteran writer/artist proves still capable of producing work of the highest caliber.

Best Reprint - Blue Monday

When Image decided to reissue Chynna Clugston Flores's signature series, an interview with the writer/artist lead me to try some of her most famous work produced at various times during the last 10-15 years. Debuting as an Oni series predating "Scott Pilgrim", "Blue Monday" has unfortunately since been largely overshadowed by Bryan Lee O'Malley's popular series covering some of the similar thematic ground.

Yet, despite Flores' series starting out as a largely manga-inspired work, it slowly morphs into a look that shares almost as much with the "Archie" titles. Covering a similar high school themed territory, her stories start as very dense with a manic fanzine-like energy, which gradually becoming better paced.

Gone is the all too familiar angst typical of the self-published autobiographical titles. In the writer/artist's telling, these are young people who despite their dramatic bursts still like one another and interact as a true group of peers.

With the long teased follow-up to these initial stories officially scheduled to debut the next year, the readers will finally be able to see what these characters have been up to as well as how their creator sees them from a viewpoint a decade removed from her initial start in the industry.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Huck 1-6

Announced as another in a row of Mark ("Kick-Ass") Millar's movie ready mini-series, "Huck" was marketed as a humane, lighthearted reintepretation of the Superman archetype. Teamed up with Rafael ("American vampire") Albuquerque, the writer was poised to recast the character's origin in a modern day story taking equal inspiration from Jerry Siegel and "Forrest Gump".

The result is a nicely paced, assured work of slight ambition, working in broad strokes that ultimately ends up updating even some of the jingoistic detritus carried over from the Silver Age.

In Albuquerque's angular style, Huck himself is presented more as an overgrown child than a mildly retarded young man with a heart of gold. His desire to do good forges close ties between the giant and his small and accepting community, draped in homely blues and browns. The story starts when the nostalgic town gets threatened by the outside forces and the secret of it's superhuman benefactor's existence becomes known worldwide.

The higher profile brings Huck into direct contact with the rest of the planet, as well as the people that know a lot more about his origins. The character's innate goodness and naivety are never brought into question or challenged, as the story refocuses on people trying to manipulate him for their own ends.

The drama ultimately boilds down to a pulp plot involving inhumane experiments in a secret Russian military base. As presented, the science city is an inverse of Huck's hometown, drawing directly from the Cold War paranoia, complete with the one-dimensional scientist who could not look more evil if he tried.

The creators' heavy handed approach is foreshadowed in an early sequence where Huck quickly deals away with a terrorist threat. Yet in this day and age, such portrayals can only be seen as offending.

"Forrest Gump" showed a much more nuanced and humane vision of the Vietnam conflict, and what Millar and Albuqerque present here can only be seen as reductive. Devolving serious political issues to a black and white presentation was a staple of Silver Age comicbooks, but even these were eventually called into question and largely dismissed as cheap propaganda.

Contrasting the altruistic strongman with the morally bankrupt evil genius ultimately resolves into a feel good ending that reinforces traditional American values and brings the story full circle. As told by two veteran comicmakers, the story is well told, if unmemorable. In many ways, it brings to mind "Red Son", the writer's official Superman story. The acclaimed mini-series was both more ambitious and presented a much more balanced view of the Soviet Union.

Where his early work cemented his reputation as a creator to watch, his newest effort will hardly do much to challenge his current role as the ideas man that Hollywood listens to. "Huck" succeeds in what little it tries to accomplish, but while attempting to create emotional resonance it drags the reader into a retro fantasy that can only be considered as problematic in the complex world we love in today.