Commentaries on comics read this month

I think I may start calling these commentaries rather than reviews, because the point is not to evaluate whether each of these comics is worth reading or not, but just to record some of the things that went through my mind as I read each of them.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: FANTASTIC FOUR #19 (Marvel, 2007) – B-. This is a rather simplistic and preachy story in which Reed, thanks to a battle with Arcade, learns the importance of being nice to other people. It’s not actively bad but it reads like an average episode of a Saturday morning cartoon. I don’t think that this series was ever as creative or experimental as the other Marvel Adventures titles.

X-FACTOR #32 (Marvel, 2008) – B. Lately I’ve been trying to finish all the unread comics I had before I moved to Atlanta in 2011. This was one of them. PAD’s second run on X-Factor is not my favorite work of his, partly because it’s difficult to understand without having followed it from the beginning, partly due to excessive seriousness. I typically prefer funny PAD to serious PAD. This issue is reasonably effective, but it’s the conclusion of an extended storyline which seems to have been written for the trade, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in that form.

X-FACTOR #33 (Marvel, 2008) – B+. Artistically this issue is a massive departure from the previous one. The artist is Larry Stroman, who I believe worked with PAD on X-Factor in the ‘90s, and I find his art to be an acquired taste at best. His people look grotesquely cartoonish, and his portrayals of black women are especially unflattering; I actually thought I detected some racism here until I remembered that Stroman himself is black. The story in this issue is just average. I don’t particularly like most of the characters, and I actively dislike Jamie Madrox.

X-FACTOR #34 (Marvel, 2008) – C. I read this issue about three weeks ago and I hardly remember anything about it. This story is a lead-in to an extended storyline with Longshot and Shatterstar, which provides the bizarre revelation that each of them is the other’s father, but this issue itself is only the setup for that.

SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH #74 (Archie, 1974) – The first story in this issue takes place in a graveyard, and has some moderately spooky artwork that would not be entirely out of place in a horror comic. I can’t think of anything else in this comic that’s worth commenting on.

“FOREVER PEOPLE #11 (DC, 1972) – A+. I have this entire series in a black-and-white trade paperback, but I’m slowly collecting the original issues, and it’s nice to read them in color. This issue, the last issue of the series, is an extended fight scene in which the Forever People battle Devilance the Pursuer, and it ends with them getting stuck on an Edenic uninhabited planet. This is both a satisfying send-off for the characters and a useful hook that other writers might have used to develop new Forever People stories. Unfortunately the characters were never seen again until J.M. DeMatteis’s 1988 miniseries, which was execrably bad.

DAREDEVIL #29 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. This continues to be the best Daredevil run since the ‘80s. In this issue Matt and his client Nate Hackett have to escape from a courtroom which has been completely taken over by the Sons of the Serpent. Therefore the issue is a long series of action sequences which are very well executed, but the really impressive part is that the Sons’ takeover of the legal system is genuinely frightening and seems almost plausible. One scene, where Matt narrowly saves a black man from being shot by a corrupt cop, is eerily reminiscent of recent real-world incidents of police brutality against minorities. A possible critique of this story, though, is that the Sons of the Serpent are rather cartoonish and implausible villains, and are clearly not a plausible depiction of actual white supremacist terrorists. It could be argued that by depicting them in this way, Mark is trivializing the problem of right-wing domestic terrorism. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but another reader might be.

DAREDEVIL #30 (Marvel, 2013) – A+. This one, however, is just all kinds of fun. I am not a Silver Surfer fan, but the idea of a Daredevil/Silver Surfer team-up is appealing precisely because these characters have so little in common and come from opposite sides of the Marvel universe. Mark and Chris effectively exploit the comic potential of this premise; the best thing in the issue is the two-page splash with Matt surfing on the Surfer’s board. If Mark and Chris are the best Daredevil creative team since Miller and Mazzucchelli, then this is because they’ve found a way to integrate the serious and fun sides of the character. To put it very reductively, there are two major ways of writing Daredevil – as a light-hearted, wisecracking Spider-Man-esque swashbuckler or as a grim, realistic Batman-esque vigilante. Since Miller, most major Daredevil writers (e.g. Nocenti, Bendis and Brubaker) have adopted the latter approach, while a couple (Karl Kesel and Joe Kelly) have chosen the former approach. But Mark Waid seems to be striving for balance between the two halves of the character. He emphasizes Matt’s basic cheerfulness and lust for life, and this is reflected in Samnee and Rodriguez’s artwork, which is bright, cartoonish and full of primary colors, quite distinct from Michael Lark or Alex Maleev’s art style. And yet Mark does not let us forget that Matt’s character has been shaped by a series of awful personal tragedies. This balance between seriousness and fun is what makes this series an original and compelling take on what had previously been a rather tired character.

DAREDEVIL #31 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. The critique I mentioned in my review of issue #29 is even more relevant to this issue, which is a thinly disguised retelling of the Trayvon Martin case. The twist is that after the George Zimmerman character gets off scot-free, the Jester tries to incite a race riot by revealing the names of the jurors on live television. I honestly don’t know whether I approve of this story or not. A Marvel comic hardly seems like an appropriate forum for addressing such a sensitive issue, and yet Mark does depict the Trayvon Martin verdict as the gross miscarriage of justice that it was, and he doesn’t offer any easy solutions to the structural racism of the American justice system. I suppose Mark deserves credit for his willingness to engage with such risky subject matter.

PRETTY DEADLY #2 (Image, 2013) – B. I am having a lot of trouble getting into this series. Emma Rios’s artwork is powerfully evocative, especially the back cover and the page with the butterflies. But KSDC’s writing is seriously unclear. At this point I more or less understand what’s going on, but I still wish she had just explained from the beginning who all the characters are and what they have to do with each other. Also, the pseudo-nineteenth-century dialogue seems annoying rather than authentic. The “death rides on the wind” poem is particularly grating, since it doesn’t scan at all. I’m willing to continue reading this series, but it’s not among my favorite current Image titles.

MANIFEST DESTINY #2 (Image, 2013) – A-. This, on the other hand, I really like. The premise is fascinating – Lewis and Clark with monsters. Both the writing and the artwork seem historically accurate and realistic, creating a sense of plausibility that contrasts effectively with the plant zombies and buffalo centaurs. Chris Dungess seems to have done a fair amount of research into the era, and he writes dialogue that sounds plausibly close to actual early-19th-century English. After reading this I was curious to read more of this series.

DAREDEVIL #32 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. In this issue Matt goes to Kentucky to look for Werewolf by Night, I forget why, and gets caught in an attempted lynching. Mark’s depiction of the people of Stone Hills, Kentucky verges on offensive stereotyping; he wants us to see them as stupid racist hicks who pull out the torches and pitchforks as soon as they hear there’s a black person in town. It turns out that the people being lynched are monsters (Werewolf by Night, Satana, etc.) and not African-Americans, so the townspeople’s mob behavior is actually justified, but this doesn’t change how the reader perceives them. By the way, I wish I could say I saw this plot twist coming, but I didn’t. Besides that I have little else to say about this issue.

AQUAMAN #41 (DC, 1968) – B+. This is an early issue by the Skeates/Aparo team. It’s part of an ongoing storyline in which Aquaman searches for the kidnapped Mera, but the main plot of this issue involves Aquaman’s encounter with some undersea people who live in tandem with a bunch of giant sea monsters. It turns out that the sea monsters provide energy for the people, and in exchange the people allow the sea monsters to eat them. The surprising thing is that when Aquaman discovers this, he just escapes, rather than trying to do anything to change the situation; in a more typical Silver Age DC comic, he would have come up with some magical solution that would have allowed the people to sustain their civilization without having to be eaten by monsters. The implication is that Aquaman either can’t do so, or won’t, because as he mentions at one point, being devoured by sea monsters is part of these people’s culture, and they don’t know any different. It’s an interesting case of moral relativism, analogous to human sacrifice in Aztec culture.

DAREDEVIL #33 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. This issue is mostly free of racial politics but is full of supernatural phenomena. As noted above, for the last thirty years most writers have depicted Daredevil as a grittily realistic character, and he almost seems to exist in a different universe from characters like Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer. Which is a strange thing about the Marvel Universe – that it’s not one universe but many, belonging to many different genres, which occasionally intersect. But Matt’s total incomprehension of the supernatural side of the Marvel Universe is actually part of the appeal of this story. An example of this is the scene where Matt thinks “I wonder when the scare tactics start,” and then the next panel shows that he’s standing inside a mountain shaped like a snake’s open mouth. This issue is also an example of a story that takes advantage of Matt’s blindness: Matt is able to survive all the supernatural illusions that are directed at him in this issue because they appeal mostly to the sight.

BATMAN, INC. #5 (DC, 2011) – C+. Not so long ago Grant Morrison was the preeminent writer in the industry, but his career has taken a serious downturn, largely because he’s so popular that no one dares to edit his stories. One result of this is that his writing has become impossibly confusing. Grant’s Batman comics are incomprehensible unless you’ve been following them from the beginning. It’s not possible to just pick up a single issue of Batman, Inc. and figure out what’s going on. He has some fascinating ideas, but it takes entirely too much work to understand what those ideas are. Also, Batwoman, who appears in this issue, seems quite out of character.

X-FACTOR #7 (Marvel, 2006) – B-. I alluded to this briefly above, but one problem I have with PAD’s X-Factor is that I don’t especially like any of the characters, except Wolfsbane. And I’m not sure that PAD even wants us to like them. Jamie Madrox, for example, just seems like an insufferable cocky jerk. And in this issue, when Siryn is told that her father is dead, she doesn’t believe it, instead assuring everyone that of course he’ll be back soon. Clearly the reader is not supposed to approve of this reaction (even though it was justified – Banshee did come back to life in Uncanny Avengers last year). I would enjoy this series a lot more if it contained any characters I could sympathize with.

X-FACTOR #12 (Marvel, 2006) – C. I barely remember this one. It’s the conclusion of an ongoing storyline that I didn’t read, and even if I had read it, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. The one notable thing about this story is that it includes a scene where a woman opens her refrigerator and an old man uses some kind of superpower to manifest himself to her from inside the refrigerator. Incredible Hulk #400 also includes a scene that fits that exact same description. And this was not a reference to “women in refrigerators,” because it predated the Green Lantern story that was the origin of that phrase. So either the scene in X-Factor #12 was a very subtle (possibly unconscious) homage to the scene in Hulk #400, or PAD has some weird obsession with refrigerators.

PRETTY DEADLY #3 (Image, 2013) – B+/A-. Here the story is starting to become clearer; I’m finally starting to understand who Sissy and Alice and Ginny are and what they have to do with each other. However, I wish KSDC had provided this exposition at the start of the series, rather than introducing these characters with no explanation of who they were. Emma Rios’s artwork is the major draw of this series; her page layouts are innovative if overly convoluted, and she creates a powerful sense of eerieness. I still haven’t felt motivated to read issue 4.

SUPERGIRL #42 (DC, 2000) – B+/A-. I have a lot of issues of PAD’s Supergirl but have been hesitant to read them due to unfamiliarity with either the storyline or this version of the character. But I actually liked this issue a lot more than the X-Factors reviewed above. There are scenes here that have the same sort of humor as in Young Justice, like when Linda’s roommate walks out of the shower naked, not realizing that Linda’s boyfriend is visiting. And unlike the X-Factor characters, Linda is quite appealing; she’s goofy and naïve but in a charming way. I think I want to read more of this series.

THE FOX #4 (Archie, 2014) – B+. This is a deliberate throwback to an earlier era of superhero comics, and so it’s all fast-paced action with bright primary colors. It’s interesting as a departure from the excessively dark and depressing material that Marvel and DC are currently publishing, but I’m not sure what there is here that’s genuinely new. I never thought of Dean Haspiel as a superhero artist – I’m mostly familiar with him because of his collaborations with Pekar – and his artwork here is excessively loose and cartoonish. Still, I like the idea behind this series and I’m willing to stick with it for at least a couple more issues.

THE SANDMAN #42 (DC, 1992) – A+. I’ve already read this story several times. The main thing that occurs to me on rereading it is what an insufferable jerk Morpheus is. Everything Death says about him in issue #8 (“”You are utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification in this or any other plane!” and so on) is completely true. For example, in this issue, after being dumped by Thessaly, Morpheus has a temper tantrum and makes it rain until everyone in the Dreaming is completely drenched, and then he acts rude to Delirium when she comes to visit him. One of the key story threads throughout the series, though, is that Morpheus’s relationships with other people gradually teach him to be human – he tells Will Shakespeare in issue 75 “I am not a man. And I do not change,” but it’s not true. “Brief Lives” is important to Morpheus’s character arc because it gives him a chance to act like a genuine big brother to Delirium (who is one of the other truly great characters in the series, and has much in common with Pinkie Pie).

DAREDEVIL #34 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. Overall this is a satisfying conclusion to the Sons of the Serpent storyline, but there’s one thing about it that annoys me. The story ends with Kirsten McDuffie giving a big inspiring speech about how mob mentality sucks, and when people tell you that a certain group is the cause of all your problems, you should ignore them. This is fine, and rather uncontroversial. But the example she uses is problematic: “Pay close attention to your colleagues and peers. Ask yourself which ones are constantly telling you exactly what you want to hear about your problems – that it’s the blacks or the wingnuts or the one-percents [emphasis mine] or the have-nots out to get you – and then decide if that anger serves them more than it serves you.” Does Mark seriously think that anger against the 1% is equally as unjustifiable as anger against black people? Even though he himself has spent most of his career working for comics companies which are run by one-percenters, and has regularly been screwed over by them? I hope that this line was inserted by an editor and that it doesn’t represent Mark’s actual feelings about economic inequality.

COURTNEY CRUMRIN #10 (Oni, 2013) – A. Until I finished reading this issue I didn’t realize it was the conclusion to the entire Courtney Crumrin saga. Unannounced final issues are very rare in comics, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ted Naifeh was able to conclude this series on his own terms and with such a satisfying sense of resolution. I didn’t understand everything that was going on here since my knowledge of this series is limited, but it seems that Courtney ends up as a normal girl, with Uncle Aloysius’s brother restored to life as her brother. It’s an elegant conclusion that leads us out of the realm of fantasy and back into the real world, kind of like the end of Spirited Away. I don’t know if Ted Naifeh is a major artist, but he has developed a completely unique sensibility, which is expressed most effectively in this series.

DARK HORSE PRESENTS #100-2 (Dark Horse, 1995) – A-. The stories in this anniversary issue are of widely varying quality, but the best of them are quite interesting. The possible classic here is “The Chained Coffin,” a possible origin story for Hellboy. Mignola’s artwork in this story is extremely impressive, but the best part of the story is the last line, which is a bizarre non sequitur: “Abe Sapien dreams of fish.” There is also a brief Eddie Campbell story which is a preview of After the Snooter, a book I own but have never gotten around to. Next there are two stories by people I’ve never heard of, both of which are complete gibberish, but the quality improves again with a Roberta Gregory story, which is quite funny although it follows the standard Bitchy Bitch formula quite closely. Finally there is a wordless story by Paul Pope, which has no narrative to speak of but is quite attractively drawn.

SUPERMAN #652 (DC, 2006) – A-/B+. This is part five of “Up, Up, and Away!” In this story Clark finally starts to get his powers back, which is almost disappointing because Kurt and Geoff had been doing such a good job of depicting a powerless Clark Kent who was gradually learning to live like anyone else. Lois’s reaction to the return of Clark’s powers is actually quite frustrating: she says that she’s like a fireman’s wife, who has to constantly watch her husband run into burning buildings. Besides the sexist implication that all firefighters are male and heterosexual, this is annoying because it suggests that Lois is content with an essentially subservient and passive role in her marriage, whereas the previous parts of this story had depicted Lois as being far more competent and aggressive than Clark. I’d prefer to think that Geoff was responsible for this scene, not Kurt. Overall I kind of wish Clark had remained powerless for even longer, although I did enjoy Kurt’s subsequent stories involving a fully powered Superman.

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #116 (Marvel, 1965) – A+. Given my general low opinion of Lee and Kirby’s Thor, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this issue. Easily the highlight of the issue is the panel where Odin gets out of the bathtub and puts on a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers (this panel can be seen midway down the page at http://marveluniversity.blogspot.com/2012/01/may-1965-new-avengers-assemble.html). This is especially funny because just a couple pages ago, Odin was sitting on his throne, giving commands and looking regal. There is other stuff in the issue that’s almost as fun: Thor and Loki have to fight a bunch of carnivorous plants, and Daredevil and the Avengers make cameo appearances that fit perfectly into continuity. Reading this story, I genuinely felt that Stan and Jack were having fun writing and drawing it, which is an impression I don’t always get from ‘60s Thor. For once, the Tales of Asgard backup in this issue is worse than the lead story; its highlight is that the villain wears a very silly-looking helmet.

ASTRO CITY #2 (Image, 1995) – A+. I read this story when it came out in trade format in the ‘90s. Reading it again almost two decades later, I remember the main plot very well (especially the last panel with the “shark stops train” headline), but I think that on my first reading I missed a lot of the subtle references and I didn’t realize how accurately Kurt and Brent depicted 1950s America. One example of a subtle point I missed in the original story is that Eliot Mills never mentions what became of his girlfriend Leslie, but on his desk he has a photograph of a woman and two children (I can’t tell if the woman is supposed to be Leslie or not) and he’s drinking from a “World’s Greatest Grand-Dad” coffee mug. And the story is full of referneces to names like Feldstein, Meskin, Briefer and Tripp. When I first read this story I thought that the ending was extremely depressing and disappointing, which it is, but it also has a warm and pleasantly nostalgic tone which almost compensates for the anticlimactic shock ending.

GLADSTONE’S SCHOOL FOR WORLD CONQUERORS #2 (Image, 2011) – B+. Mark Andrew Smith, the writer of this comic, effectively ended his own career when his Kickstarter project failed spectacularly and he blamed the artist for it. After his disgraceful behavior during that debacle, I imagine he will have a hard time finding either artists who are willing to work with him or fans who are willing to support his work. I think the comics industry will get along fine without him. This comic is cute, funny and well-drawn, and has an innovative premise (which is explained in the title), but it’s nothing spectacular.

CAPTAIN ACTION #3 (DC, 1969) – A+. The impressive thing about this series is how seriously it takes itself, considering that the comic was based on an action figure. According to Wikipedia, the concept behind the Captain Action toy was that he had the ability to change into other superheroes, but DC was unable to use this concept because some of the superheroes in question were owned by other publishers. Therefore, in writing the comic, Gil Kane had the opportunity to take the character in a different direction, essentially creating a new superhero universe, and he took full advantage of that opportunity. The story in this issue combines bizarre Kirby/Ditko-esque cosmic stuff (sample line: “He plucks whole nebulae from swirling clouds of gaseous crystals, only to be swallowed into a multicolored spray of intergalactic chime-tones”) with melodramatic pathos (one panel depicts a baby crying over its father’s corpse). As the previous summary suggests, Gil Kane’s writing style is extremely histrionic, similar to Will Eisner’s writing but even less subtle. But this can be attributed to inexperience – in the letter column, there’s a letter from Gil thanking Julie for the opportunity to “develop and evolve a character in my own fashion.” So this series can be seen as sort of a preview for later Gil Kane works such as Blackmark and His Name Is… Savage, neither of which I have read, but I get the feeling that they were both more mature works than this one. The other highlight of the issue, obviously, is the art; Gil Kane’s action sequences are as gorgeous as usual and his pencils are beautifully inked by Wally Wood.

HELLBLAZER #66 (Vertigo, 1993) – A-. This issue is extremely disturbing. It’s the conclusion of Fear and Loathing, in which Constantine tricks the archangel Gabriel into defiling himself, then cuts his wings off. I don’t know exactly why he did this, and it’s kind of hard not to agree with Gabriel when he says “Why is it… when people like you see something pure and good and beautiful… that you have to kick it down and drag it through the mud?” Both the writing and artwork in this issue are very well executed, but the story is kind of hard to enjoy; maybe it would have left less of a bad taste in my mouth if I had read the entire story continuously.

THE OCCULT FILES OF DR. SPEKTOR #2 (Gold Key, 1973) – C+/B-. At this very early point, this series was just a standard horror comic. Glut and Santos had yet to seriously develop the characters of Dr. Spektor and Lakota, who are the most interesting thing about the series, even if Lakota is a rather dated and offensive stereotype. The first issue is a standard piece of Gothic horror which is notable only because the villain is named Howard Rogo. Don Glut liked to use names of real people in his stories, so I assume this character is named after Howard Rogofsky, a dealer who was active in fandom at the same time Glut was. The backup story is even less interesting since it doesn’t feature Dr. Spektor or Lakota at all.

FEARLESS DEFENDERS #10 (Marvel, 2013) – B+. This story introduces Ren Kimura, a Japanese-American dancer who joins the Defenders to get away from her stifling parents. Ren is a pretty interesting character, and also quite visually distinctive thanks to the giant razor ribbons on her arms. Her overly strict parents do seem rather stereotypical, but she herself is a distinctive and mostly non-stereotypical character. Unfortunately, with the cancellation of her series I expect she will end up in the same limbo as so many of Marvel’s other female characters of color. I should point out again here that the cancellation of Fearless Defenders is really unfortunate, because how long will it be before there’s another Marvel comic with an entirely female cast which includes multiple women of color? Thankfully the cancellation of the series has not deterred Marvel from publishing more comics with female POC protagonists.

SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS SPECIAL nn (DC, 2003) – A. This preview comic consists of one chapter from the Endless Nights anthology, a book I have not read. The artist is Miguelanxo Prado, whose album Streak of Chalk was the subject of part of my MA thesis. That book is interesting both for its narrative depth and for his gorgeous painted artwork – as a painter, Prado is on the same level as Lorenzo Mattotti. Prado’s artwork on this story is not quite up to that standard, but his backgrounds are often gorgeous, and his facial expressions are more or less perfect. The plot of this story, however, is a little unconvincing and perfunctory. I find it hard to buy that Killalla and Sto-Oa would fall in love after knowing each other for just four pages. And Morpheus begins the story by describing Desire as his favorite sibling, but Gaiman never shows us any evidence that of Morpheus’s fondness for Desire. And when Morpheus discovers that Desire set Killalla up with Sto-Oa, his attitude toward Desire takes an immediate 180-degree turn; he tells Desire that they’re not friends anymore and Desire should stay out of his business. I would have found all of this much more plausible if the story had been developed at greater length. What is far more interesting about this story is the way that Neil develops the prehistory of the DC universe. For example, there’s a scene where Despair gives Rao (Krypton’s sun) the idea of evolving life on an unstable planet. It’s just one throwaway line and yet it seems so perfect. Maybe this story illustrates how Neil is sometimes better with small details than with the big picture.

THE MIGHTY THOR #14 (Marvel, 2012) – C. I mostly bought this because of the Walt Simonson cover. The story inside was quite forgettable. It has little if anything to do with Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery saga, and despite the recap, I didn’t really understand who the characters were or how they fit together. The Endless Library is a cool idea, and I love the visual gimmick of the goblin in a business suit. However, I just finished reading Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, and in that story the concept of an infinite multidimensional library is executed in a much funnier way. (To say nothing of Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”)

KING CONAN #7 (Marvel, 1981) – A-. In general this is quite a satisfying Conan story, especially because in this issue Conan finally gets the chance to kill his old enemy King Yezdigerd of Turan. However, the story suffers from a lack of structure. The plot, which is adapted from de Camp and Nyberg’s novel Conan the Avenger, largely seems like an excuse for Conan to re-encounter a bunch of characters from earlier stories. These encounters often seem both implausible and unnecessary to the story. For example, when Conan gets on board a pirate ship, it just happens to be commanded by an old enemy of his from his pirate days. And the issue ends with a scene where Conan meets Yasmina Devi from “The People of the Black Circle,” but this scene has nothing whatever to do with the overarching story of Conan’s search for Zenobia (and it even makes Conan look bad, since he cheats on Zenobia with Yasmina). Scenes like this make this story seem like less an epic quest than a parade of Conan’s greatest hits.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #2 (IDW, 2014) – B+. I kind of wish this series were called My Little Pony Team-Up (or My Little Pony: Team-Ups are Magic). The team-up in this issue is between the Cutie Mark Crusaders and Discord, which is kind of an awesome idea, and Jeremy Whitley and Tony Fleecs take full advantage of the premise by having Discord insert the Cutie Mark Crusaders into a variety of bizarre situations. The coolest scene in the issue is when the CMC transform into a Voltron-esque “Mega-Pony” and battle a giant kaiju monster who strangely resembles Gummy. The issue includes lots of other scenes of this nature, and these scenes illustrate one of the cool things about the MLP characters: their ability to be reimagined in the context of lots of different storytelling genres. Until I started writing this review I forgot that Jeremy Whitley was also the writer of Princeless. I love the premise of that series, although I felt its execution and its production values were kind of amateurish, and Whitley is certainly well qualified to write a story with young female protagonists.

SHE-HULK #2 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. I think Charles Soule is the first She-Hulk writer who is actually a lawyer. Earlier She-Hulk comics have depicted basically a caricatured version of how the law works, but Soule’s first two issues of She-Hulk have revealed an insider’s knowledge of both the law and the legal profession. Because of this, his depiction of Jen’s professional struggles (e.g. not getting work due to being badmouthed by her previous employers) is especially realistic and poignant. This situation has some serious potential for feminist critique – it seems like people don’t take Jen seriously as a lawyer because she’s a physically powerful woman – and I hope this is where Soule is going with this storyline. The second half of the issue, the part with the Hellcat team-up, is not quite as good, but I still look forward to issue 3.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #4 (Archie, 2014) – A+. This might be the third best monthly comic right now, after Saga and Sex Criminals. The appeal of this series comes both from Francesco Francavilla’s beautifully atmospheric artwork and from the completely serious, deadpan style of the storytelling, which is completely the opposite of what we expect from these characters. The best example of this is the page where Archie uses a baseball bat to beat his zombie father into submission. On this page, images of the actual beating are intercut with bright yellow panels showing Archie’s cherished memories of his dad. It’s a powerfully moving scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a series like The Walking Dead, and yet you can’t read this without remembering that this is an Archie comic, for pete’s sake. And I think that sense of an impossible contradiction between the characters and their situation is exactly the effect that Aguirre-Sacassa and Francavilla are going for. In fact, because this is an Archie comic, it’s actually more scary than if it just involved some random characters.

CHEW #40 (Image, 2014) – A+. I didn’t realize it until I looked at the cover again, but this is actually the conclusion to “Family Recipes.” The conclusion raises more questions than it addresses, but at least this story gives Toni Chu a nice send-off. The page where she walks off into the sunset (and then nearly gives Tony a heart attack by reappearing to tell him something else) is genuinely poignant. Chew is a grossout humor title, but Layman and Guillory have succeeded in making me care about their characters anyway. There is one cool panel where John, while hallucinating, holds up a case file and the letters fall off of it. This is an interesting example of how comics blur the distinction between text that is internal to the storyworld and text that is external to it.

RAT QUEENS #5 (Image, 2014) – A. Another exciting and unconventional Image comic, which I picked up partly because Eric Stephenson cited it in his speech (discussed in earlier blog posts) as an example of an Image comic that appeals to female readers. (Not that I’m a female reader myself, obviously; I just find that comics which appeal to female audiences often appeal to me as well.) This series has been billed as an all-girl version of Lord of the Rings, but having played a lot of Baldur’s Gate lately, I think it has much more in common with Dungeons & Dragons. All the events and characters in the story are standard RPG cliches. The twist is that all the main characters are women, and not only that, but women of widely varying races and body types – even one of the villains is a grotesquely fat female troll. Like Fearless Defenders, this series is by an all-male creative team, but it stars a diverse cast of female characters and it treats them with respect. This sort of thing is a serious step in the right direction for the comic book industry, and I look forward to reading more Rat Queens.

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