SHAZAM! THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL (1 of 4)
Back in the Golden Age of comics the main thrust of funny books was to be fun entertainment for kids, and no comics fit that bill better than the stories about Captain Marvel and his friends. Originally a bald-faced Superman ripoff, the Captain soon outstripped the original in both creativity and sales, and deservedly so since his adventures were a kind of balls-out fun that the Superman books wouldn’t even begin to approach until the mid-1950’s. The subsequent attempts at getting it right with the Captain have been wildly hit or miss, but I’m glad to say that Jeff Smith, the talented creative force behind BONE, has a rock-solid understanding of what made the character fun and unique, and this first of four parts is an absolutely perfect re-introduction to Captain marvel for contemporary audiences. We get a simplified version of the origin, Billy Batson looks like a little kid again, and the art is that deceptively simple-looking animation-style stuff Smith employed in BONE, and fuck me if it isn’t just gorgeous. It’s a bit pricey at $5.99, but I shelled out the cash and was not disappointed in the least. Say the word… SHAZAM, MUTHAFUKKA!!!
THE GRAVE ROBBER’S DAUGHTER by Richard Sala
When foul-mouthed Nancy Drew stand-in Judy Drood’s car breaks down outside of Obadiah’s Glen, the detective wanders into the town for assistance and gets caught up in a bizarre hallucination brought to life. The town appears deserted save for a group of teenagers gathered inside an old house, an eerie little girl named Nellie Kelley, and a small army of ever-grinning, sinister clowns, and the answers to the many questions raised by this queer scenario unravel at a brisk pace, revelations punctuated with fisticuffs, a tentacled sideshow mutant, ghoulish shenanigans in an accursed graveyard, and a most unusual potion housed in the bottles of a dank wine cellar. Sala’s David Lynchian realm possesses the feel of a spooky mystery tale, but his illustrative style echoes a retro children’s book look, and that visual trope greatly works to add a friendly yet disturbing timbre to the proceedings. Sala has always offered something different, and this current piece leaves the reader eager for the further exploits of Judy Drood in a world so similar to our own, but with one toe just over the line into the Twilight Zone.
JONAH HEX #16
Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti continue to give readers the best — and I believe only — western comic out there, and the tone of the revived JONAH HEX series is anything but comic, although there are minute smatterings of midnight-in-a-coalmine black humor from time to time. The adventures of the scarred bounty hunter/gunfighter have been among the bleakest American comics since the character first showed up nearly four decades ago, and that trend continues to this day as Hex rides the range dispatching them what seriously need killin’. This latest issue is the first part in a story arc entitled “The Ballad of Tallulah Black,” a none-too-well-disguised “homage” to UNFORGIVEN, the only major difference being that Jonah Hex stars here instead of Clint Eastwood. The plot is basically the same as the Eastwood film, but with a few minor tweaks: a gang of cutthroats steal the land of Tallulah Black and her kin by killing all of the men and mistakenly leaving her for dead after blowing out her left eye. One year later, while addicted to opium and working as a whore at the Blue Pasture cathouse (I’ve always loved that euphemism), the man who put out her eye shows up, buys time with her, and when she realizes who he is and scratches his face while in her opium haze, he beats her and sadistically mutilates her face and “nethers,” rendering her unable to have children (thankfully this happens off camera). Outraged at this atrocity, the house’s madame gives Tallulah a wad of cash and sends her after Jonah Hex in hope that he’ll teach her until she’s deadly enough to take vengeance for herself. By issue’s end Tallulah suffers further indignities until she is inadvertently rescued from the clutches of a serial killer by Hex. Jonah’s not interested in Tallulah’s plight, but reluctantly agrees to be her mentor. The script is as tight as ever, but this series is cursed with uneven art, and it looks like this arc is in the hands of Phil Noto, an artist whose work I never cared for thanks to its stiff, unfinished look, so we’ll see what happens. But be that as it may, JONAH HEX remains bleak, brutal, violent, nihilistic and downbeat as hell. In other words, the Lone Ranger this ain’t, and I’m just fine with that.
FANTASTIC FOUR: THE END #5 (of 6)
Alan Davis is a supremely — and I do mean SUPREMELY — talented artist who wears his love of all things super-heroic on his sleeve; be it the DCU or the Marvel Universe, Davis knows both inside and out, and Davis is there with pencil in hand to bring the myriad wonders of both locales to vivid, fists-a-flyin’ life, and the visual rewards are always lavish. Too bad his scripting skills lag several parsecs behind his pretty pictures. This “What If…?”-style Fantastic Four tale is set approximately ten years in a utopian future of reed Richards’ making and once again gives us a sundered FF and guest stars up the whiz-wang; Reed and Sue are on the outs for the umpteenth time, Ben and Alicia living their dreams of marriage and family, Johnny doing whatever the fuck he’s doing, Namor’s there (sniffing around Sue yet again), Doctor Strange and his daughter doing cryptic mystical shit, the Inhumans running around looking odd, Nick Fury, a female Mar-Vell stand-in named Ayesha, the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard, the High Evolutionary, representatives of the Kree Empire including Ronan the Accuser, Galactus and the Watcher, the Avengers and pretty much damn near every other superhero, villain, or alien race you can think of, it’s all there, but I’ll be dipped in dogshit if I can tell you what the story is about. It’s opulent to the nth degree, but I have no idea whatsoever as to what’s going on, and while I will keep reading it for the art, I can’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the Marvel Universe from 1961 onward in minute detail unless they dig Davis. Seriously, this one should have something akin to those “Parental Advisory” CD labels on the cover, only stating “For Advanced-Level Fanboys Only” since the only character missing is Tomazooma, the Living Totem Pole, and for all I know he may be sardined into the background somewhere, right next to the Gunhawks.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK #103
In the latest chapter of the ongoing “Planet Hulk” storyline, the unwillingly-exiled Hulk has permanently kicked the ass of the planet Sakaar’s major league douchebag of an emperor, and now finds himself king of the whole shebang. The band of former gladiators he has war-bonded with are somewhat disappointed that he’s no longer kicking ass every three seconds, so the seeds of dissent have been sown, and while that’s going on the Hulk decides he wants a queen, and chooses the very willing warrior Caiera for the job. They get married and make the beast with two backs — just put the logistics of that one out of your mind — and two of the ex-gladiators uncover how Hulk got to Sakaar, a revelation that will undoubtedly be the catalyst for the next major arc. This is fun stuff, in many ways the barbarian Hulk epic I would have written when I was twelve, but is it just me or is this is an expanded bite off of Harlan Ellison’s “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom” from the early 1970’s? You know, the one that introduced the Hulk’s ill-fated romance with Jarella, the green-skinned queen of a sub-atomic warrior world? Just something to consider. Oh, and as much as I like the story, I’m not a fan of Aaron Lopresti’s art on this; he’s got one of those styles that makes every figure appear as fragile as glass, and that’s the exact opposite of what’s needed for a Hulk tale. Think back to Kirby, the Severins, the Buscemas, Trimpe, Byrne, and many others, and you’ll see the fleshly, massive solidity in the figures. It’s about power, strength, and impact, and I’m just not feeling that in the visuals on this epic. If I had my druthers, this run would be in the underrated and more-than-capable hands of Doug Mahnke.
Jennifer Walters was one of the superheroes who voluntarily registered with the government in Marvel’s current CIVIL WAR event, and while promised she wouldn’t end up as nothing more than a glorified S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, that’s exactly what has happened to her. The snazzy black jumpsuit and funky gun means it’s “She-Hulk, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, and the jade giantess puts much foot to the Abomination for much of this issue, all while her narration fills us in on her growing uncertainty over whether her She-Hulk persona is taking over what remains of her human identity. It’s been hinted at in the past that Jennifer doesn’t care much for how meek and unspectacular she is, choosing to hide behind the zaftig physicality and dynamic personality of She-Hulk 99.9999999% of the time, and her recent behavior exhibits signs of She-Hulk gaining the upper hand, most disturbingly illustrated by an uncharacteristic romp in the sack with smarmy S.H.I.E.L.D. stalwart Clay Quartermain. Doc Samson wants to get her on the couch for some much needed analysis, but Shulkie ain’t having it, so where will all of this lead? Dan Slott’s writing is as sharp and fun as ever, but Rick Burchett’s art leaves me a tad cold, and that’s a shame because if this book had a steady, solid artist it could be a real A-lister.
DOCTOR STRANGE: THE OATH # 1-4 (of 5)
Y: THE LAST MAN scribe Brian K. Vaughn again works his magic (sorry, I couldn’t resist), this time applying his golden touch to Marvel’s sorcerer supreme, with able support from artist Marcos Martin. When Doctor Strange’s manservant, Wong, is stricken with cancer, Strange enters another dimension to retrieve a potion that could cure his friend. It turns out that not only is the serum a cure for cancer, it’s also a universal cure, and now unscrupulous parties want it for their own ends, and it’s up to Strange and the Night Nurse (yes, the Night Nurse!) to set things right. It may not sound like much, but this series moves briskly and is a lot of fun, especially to those like me who have been starved for a hearty Doctor Strange fix, and while he may not be Steve Ditko, Marcos Martin’s work on the series is a lot of fun and channels much of the Ditkoesque quirkiness that the good Doctor’s adventures require. This has one issue to go so I recommend waiting for the inevitable collected edition.
CIVIL WAR: THE RETURN
I loved Jim Starlin’s hippy-dippy “cosmic” epics that gave 1970’s Marvel one of the few post-Stan & Jack high spots at the time, and his work on CAPTAIN MARVEL was seminal “have I been dosed?” stuff, right up there with the even better WARLOCK (which needs a hardcover Masterworks edition immediately!!!). The Marvel Universe was already pretty far reaching, what with its alien empires, hallucinogenic other dimensions, and realms of ancient gods, but Starlin’s lysergic visions upped the ante considerably, even dragging Marvel’s preeminent superhero team, the Avengers, into deep space for adventures that defied imagining. Leading the charge was Captain Mar-Vell, seasoned warrior of the extraterrestrial Kree, and out of the super-powered heroes he was one of the toughest; a natural badass as well as being a highly skilled hand-to-hand combatant and trained soldier, Mar-Vell (or Captain Mar-Vell, in reference to his rank) was a deep thinker when he wasn’t handing out ass-whuppings to Skrulls or Thanos, the Mad God, regularly meditating in the ether of the Negative Zone (if you don’t know, don’t ask; it’s too complicated to go into here). After Starlin left writing and drawing CAPTAIN MARVEL the book meandered along and was entertaining enough, but without Starlin’s acid-soaked vision it eventually fizzled out in a sputter of mediocrity. Then Starlin came back for the first of Marvel’s graphic novels in the early 1980’s, the exquisite THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, in which Mar-Vell discovered that a nearly forgotten encounter with the villain Nitro had given him terminal cancer. From that point on, the story has absolutely no rock ‘em sock ‘em and instead opts to depict an indomitable warrior succumbing to a foe he cannot hope to defeat. After that truly moving exit, Mar-Vell remained dead, but now he’s back, thanks to a time rift and being fished out of the Negative Zone, ostensibly to be a jailer at Reed Richards’ metahuman prison. He gets there — still infected with cancer, but it has yet to manifest — agrees to act as a warden, and then fucks off into deep space in search of answers to who knows what. This is an utterly superfluous revival of one of the great cult heroes, and unless something good is done with him, I wouldn’t piss on this with a leper’s dick (although Tom Raney draws his ass off as usual). Oh, and I didn’t include the cover because it’s totally blank except for the logo, presumably to keep the return of Mar-Vell a surprise, such as it is.
CRYING FREEMAN VOL. 1
Thundering back into print and aggressively showing up much of contemporary manga for the pedestrian, assembly line shit that it is, this ultra-violent and semi-pornographic classic from the nineteen-eighties has lost none of its edge twenty years on. This over-the-top crime thriller from the co-creator of the landmark Lone Wolf and Cub, Kazuo Koike, and the illustrator of Sanctuary, Ryoichi Ikegami, details the adventures of Yo Hinomura, a potter mind-controlled by the 108 Dragons, the all-powerful Chinese mafia, into becoming the world’s deadliest assassin. When his conditioning is activated by a code phrase, Yo executes his targets in a spectacle of martial arts ass-kickery and gunplay mayhem, then shedding tears for the victims he is forced to kill. But Yo’s world turns upside down when beautiful painter/heiress Emu Hino witnesses one of his assassinations, leaving him no choice but to silence her for good. Upon meeting her again with murder intended, unforeseen romance blossoms as vengeance-bent Yakuza killers close in. The series then follows their love story, with corrupt cops, Yakuza thugs, and a surfeit of very graphic sex and violence, actually upping the ante with each subsequent volume. In other words, loads of sheer entertainment!