Still more reviews I forgot to post

1-4-13 

FEARLESS DEFENDERS #9 (Marvel, 2013) – A. This was the first issue of this series I bought. Going into this issue I had some doubts about its gender politics, because the concept of an all-female superhero team is highly progressive for Marvel, but also very easy to screw up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this issue rarely if ever engages in titillation or sexism, and that Cullen Bunn genuinely tries to present gender issues in a progressive way. Maybe he even tries too hard, as it seems like he was kind of setting up a strawman by depicting various male heroes as having a very overprotective attitude toward the female protagonists, though many the characters in question (Hercules, obviously, but also even Dr. Strange) have been depicted in the past as having a sexist attitude toward their female allies. Overall, I think this series has both a great premise and effective execution, and now that it’s been cancelled I feel guilty for not supporting it. I have no idea why it was cancelled, but I would assume it was more because of lack of publicity than because the concept was not appealing. For example, I don’t remember seeing any scans from this issue on scans_daily, and it seems like that communtiy would have loved this series.

QUANTUM & WOODY #32 (Acclaim, 1999) – A. This was not actually the 32nd issue; the series went on hiatus after #17, and then when it started up again, the first issue they published was the one that would have come out that month, if not for the hiatus. (Issues 18 to 21 were published subsequently, but the issues from 22 to 30 never materialized.) Priest and Bright take full advantage of the comic potential created by the fact that the reader comes into this issue having missed over a year’s worth of stories. #32 is full of references to other stories that hadn’t been published yet, and in some cases never would be, and it’s full of surprises: on the splash page we learn that “yep, Woody’s a black girl”, and later we discover that the original Woody is now some sort of supervillain. Continuing with the joke, the letters page is full of fake letters that reference other nonexistent stories. All this would have been more effective if I had been caught up with the first 17 issues of the series, but it’s a good example of Quantum & Woody’s characteristic humor, and the issue is also full of the series’s typical jokes.

THE BATMAN ADVENTURES #19 (DC, 1994) – A-. I’m adding the minus because of a couple nitpicky points. First, as I mentioned on Facebook, there’s one scene in this issue that takes place at the “Gotham Board of Psychiatry Annual Convention,” and there are no women present at all. I have firsthand evidence that women psychiatrist do exist, such as my mother, and surely there is at least one of them in Gotham. Second, at the end of the story, it’s not clear to me how Batman manages to get close enough to the Scarecrow to unmask him. Besides that, this is a typically impressive issue of the best Batman comic of the ‘90s. Mike Parobeck was the absolute master of the animated superhero style, but what impresses me about his art is the anatomy and composition; his ability to create dramatic action sequences with a minimum of linework is reminiscent of Alex Toth or Steve Rude (it turns out I’ve made this comparison before). And Kelley Puckett’s storytelling ability is impressive ; he leaves out information that most writers would include, e.g. the identity and origin of the mad scientist who built Scarecrow’s fear device, and yet his stories always make perfect sense and offer a satisfying resolution.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #2 (IDW, 2013) – B. This is not at the level of the best T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents material (i.e. the original series and the ‘80s Deluxe Comics revival), though it’s entirely readable and it respects the spirit of the original series. This issue reintroduces most of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad and ends with the revelation that Kitten Kane is the Iron Maiden’s sister. As I write this review, though, I realize that there wasn’t a whole lot in this issue that stuck in my mind, and I’m not sure whether my T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fandom is strong enough to sustain my interest in this series.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542 (Marvel, 2007) – D-. This would be an F except that the issue reviewed below is worse. In this issue Peter confronts the Kingpin, who he blames for mortally wounding Aunt May, and proceeds to beat him senseless and to publicly humiliate him. In my opinion, the coldblooded and sadistic way in which he punishes the Kingpin is completely out of character. Even if the Kingpin deserved this treatment, I don’t believe Peter is capable of slapping a defenseless man in the face ten times, or threatening to pour webbing down someone’s throat. Peter might engage in such behavior while in a fit of rage, but here JMS makes it clear that Peter knows what he’s doing and has accepted responsibility for it. (Compare ASM #154, where Peter nearly beats a criminal to death, but stops as soon as he realizes what he’s doing.) That is not the Spider-Man I know.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #545 (Marvel, 2008) – F. This is the final chapter of One More Day, and if it’s not the worst Spider-Man comic of all time, it’s certainly a close runner-up.

SWAMP THING #4 (DC, 2012) – B+. Surprisingly good for a New 52 DC comic. I have never heard of Marco Ruby, but his full-page compositions in this issue are quite impressive, reminding me a little of classic Swamp Thing pages by Bissette or Veitch. Or even J.H. Williams, though Ruby’s art is not at the same level of complexity. There’s one particularly funny page that’s a grim parody of Norman Rockwell’s lunch counter painting, and another one that graphically depicts Abby and Alec as avatars of the Rot and the Grim: they’re sleeping next to each other in a field, but the area around Abby is totally barren, while the area around Alec is covered with flowers and butterflies. The story here is not as interesting as the art, but Scott Snyder effectively creates a sense of menace. This issue was not good enough to make me want to break my DC boycott and read more of this series, but I would buy it if I found it cheap.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: SUPER-HEROES #12 (Marvel, 2011) – C-. This series went into a steep decline just before its cancellation; the top talent (e.g. Paul Tobin) disappeared and I think some of the last issues were even reprints. This story, for example, is not actively bad, but it’s a very simplistic story about a fight between the Hulk and the Abomination, lacking the narrative depth or originality that made Marvel Adventures exciting. The lettering in this issue is in an unusually large font size.

ALTERNATIVE COMICS #2 (Alternative Comics, 2004) – B-. This FCBD issue was published by Jeff Mason, a frequent sponsor of the UF Comics Conference. It contains work by a lot of artists who would later become big names, including Gabrielle Bell, Brandon Graham, and Josh Neufeld, as well as already-established stars like Harvey Pekar and James Kochalka. Unfortunately almost all the stories are two- or three-pagers and so none of them are especially deep. For example, the Brandon Graham story is just a two-page slice-of-life vignette, though it’s intriguing because the subject matter is much more realistic than his later work. Maybe the best material here is the somewhat longer preview of Nick Bertozzi’s The Salon, which makes me want to read some of his work.

HELLBLAZER #229 (DC, 2007) – B+/A-. This late Hellblazer story by Mike Carey and John Paul Leon is surprisingly entertaining. The story is structured like a series of fetch quests in a video game: person A asks Constantine to obtain an item from person B, but person B refuses to give up the item unless Constantine gets something else from person C, and so on. Specifically, this reminds me of the trading sequences in Ocarina of Time and other Zelda games. The trick in this issue, though, is that all the people who want stuff from Constantine turn out to be connected in some way, and Mike Carey resolves the story in a way that explains who they all are and why they want what they do. It’s an impressive demonstration of narrative skill, though I don’t like John Paul Leon’s art much.

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2011 (SPIDER-MAN) #1 (Marvel, 2011) – C+/B-. This issue offers a complete and fairly satisfying story, which is appropriate in an FCBD comic, but that story is kind of boring and is distinguished only by some witty dialogue. I predicted the twist ending (in which Spidey defeats Mandrill using perfume) long before it happened. Humberto Ramos’s style has changed so much since Impulse that I wouldn’t have guessed it was him if I didn’t know.

ADVENTURE COMICS #430 (DC, 1973) – B/B-. I really like Black Orchid as a character, and Sheldon Mayer writes effective dialogue, but this story failed to connect with me. Mayer does a good job of keeping Black Orchid’s identity mysterious, repeatedly refuting the reader’s and the characters’ guesses as to who she is. Other than that, though, there’s not much substance here, and Tony DeZuñiga’s artwork is kind of sloppy; several panels are notably lacking in backgrounds. The Adventurers’ Club backup story is also a very slight piece of work. In the letter column, the editor suggests that this series was being replaced by a new feature (i.e. The Spectre) because no one liked it, and I’m not surprised.

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #647 (Marvel, 2013) – B+. Another series with a female protagonist that was unfortunately cancelled despite its fairly high level of quality. The success of Young Avengers proves that Marvel has the ability to attract female readers; I wonder what they can do to retain those audiences after that series ends. The main plot of this issue is that Sif has a severe anger management problem and is beating people up for no reason. I don’t find this especially exciting, but there is a lot of cute stuff here, particularly the scenes involving Volstagg and his family. I would actually much rather read Journey into Mystery Starring the Volstagg Family than Journey into Mystery Starring Sif. I admit I stopped reading this series because I didn’t think it was all that great, and I was surprised to see it on CBR’s Top 100 list; again, I think Marvel didn’t promote this series as effectively as they could have.

BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #2 (DC, 2013) – A+. I’m actually considering violating my DC boycott to buy this series. Obviously the writing and artwork in this issue are adorable, but unlike say Tiny Titans, this comic also almost works as a regular Batman comic. The two stories in this issue are less seriously intended than those in Batman Adventures, and the second story is just a comic romp, but the first story, which focuses on Mr. Freeze, has some serious emotions behind it. If this story were drawn in a less cute style, you might not be able to tell it was an all-ages Batman comic. If all of DC’s comics were as charming and well-written as this, the company would not be in such bad shape and I wouldn’t be boycotting their products.

ELRIC #2 (Pacific, 1983) – B+. If there was a World Comics Hall of Fame, Michael Moorcock would deserve to be included in it because of his influence on creators ranging from Alan Moore to P. Craig Russell to Philippe Druillet. This comic is a very literal adaptation of early chapters of Elric of Melniboné, which is why it doesn’t score higher than a B; I find that excessive literalism is a problem with many of Roy Thomas’s adapted stories. However, PCR and Michael T. Gilbert do an impressive job of translating Moorcock’s words into visual form. Maybe one reason Moorcock’s work has such influence on comics is that his prose tends to be quite visual – for example, the first Elric novel begins “It is the color of a bleached skull, his flesh…” And PCR is the perfect artist to tap the visual potential of Moorcock’s words.

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2012 (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON POINT ONE) #0.1C-. This would be a D or an F if not for Bryan Hitch’s powerful and majestic artwork. I still can’t stand Bendis’s prose style, and I don’t see the point of this Age of Ultron storyline; after “Ultron Unlimited,” why should anyone else even bother writing another Ultron story? QU

THE MAGIC FLUTE #1 (Eclipse, 1990) – A. After reading Elric #2, I finally felt motivated to read this PCR opera adaptation that I’ve had for years. In Elric #2, PCR was already fairly close to his mature style, but by the time of the Magic Flute he had reached the peak of his career. In this issue he not only draws beautiful architecture, which is what I usually think of when I think of his art, he also shows mastery of facial expressions and visual acting. His characters clearly reveal their emotions through actions and body language, even when their eyes are depicted as single dots. PCR also effectively solves the problem of representing music in visual form; the sound of the flute is represented as long wavy lines that vaguely resemble musical notes, while the sound of Papageno’s bells looks like bubbles. Reading this was a lot of fun and it makes me want to both finish the series and actually listen to the entire opera.

SUPERBOY #60 (DC, 1999) – A. This series was at its best when Kesel and Grummett were directly adapting Kirby’s concepts and characters. They truly understood the spirit of Kirby’s early ‘70s creations, and they integrated this material into stories that made logical sense, which was something Kirby himself had trouble doing. I’m not saying this material is in any way equal to Kirby’s original work, but it’s an effective adaptation. For example, the highlight of this issue is some scenes involving the Hairies, characters who only appeared very briefly in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen. Kesel and Grummett correctly depict them as hippies with improbable technological skill, which is a hilarious combination, and I love their alliterative dialogue. Kesel also does a surprisingly good job of writing Batman.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #53 (DC, 1967) – C+/B-. I like the ideas behind these Silver Age DC comics, but the execution is often lacking. Too much of this issue is wasted on a boring fight between the JLA and a bunch of American folklore characters. I suppose the editors thought the readers wanted to see superheroes doing super-deeds, but that on its own is not enough to sustain an entertaining story. After the fight is over, the story does develop some more narrative complexity. And Hawkgirl, an unusually proactive and powerful female character for that time, ends up saving the day and even gets to beat some men up. But this story does not fulfill its potential for a progressive representation of gender, because Hawkgirl inexplicably doesn’t get invited to join the JLA, and the story ends with Green Arrow saying “If I could find a girl like you, Hawkgirl, I’d get married myself” – which is kind of offensive not just because of the word “girl,” but because it implies that her identity is inseparable from her marriage.

QUANTUM & WOODY #6 (Acclaim, 1997) – B+/A-. This was a substandard issue because there was too much plot and not enough humor. Some of the jokes were quite good, e.g. the sequence that cross-cuts between Quantum, who gets up at 5 AM to exercise and recite philosophy to himself, and Woody, who is lying naked in bed. However, the whole business with David Warrant would be more interesting if I could remember who this character was.

STARMAN #67 (DC, 2000) – A-. Part 7 of Grand Guignol. This one ends on a more positive note than earlier issues, and offers hints that the end of this rather long storyline is in sight. Jack is joyfully reunited with Sadie, and Bobo, who was supposed to have been dead, turns out to be alive. But the omnipresent darkness of this story is stil there: Ted Knight is shown to be suffering from the injuries that would kill him a few issues later, and Culp is depicted as an overly heartless and loathsome villain. I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned Peter Snejbjerg’s art before; I think it’s unfair to compare his work to that of Tony Harris, so I will just say that he drew some very silly facial expressions.

PROPHET #32 (Image, 2013) – B+. I’m ashamed to say that I’m about a year behind on this series. My difficulty reading it is attributable to the confusing storyline, but it occurs to me that story is really not the point of this series. Brandon Graham cares more about depicting bizarre people and places than about plot. King City is more of a series of travelogues and character sketches than an epic saga, even though it does have a flimsy underlying plot, and this series is the same. This issue is actually credited to Simon Roy, not Brandon Graham, but it has the same positive qualities as Graham’s work on this series: it’s full of creatures that are incredibly bizarre but also sometimes adorable (I love the panel where Brother John Ka strokes her pet fly under the chin). And there actually sort of is a plot here, involving John Ka’s attempts to protect the feral humans, so although this is a fill-in issue, it’s not a bad one. Simon Roy’s art seems rather crude at times.

THE FLASH #310 (DC, 1982) – B-. The Flash story here is not great, but it’s readable. As usual for Cary Bates, the plot is highly complex (or convoluted) and presents a sufficiently intriguing mystery to make me wonder what happens next. Colonel Computron is a good example of the public image of computers in the early ‘80s, as s/he can do basically anything at all but is rather clunky-looking. Carmine Infantino’s art here is less bad than it usually was in his later career, though there is one panel where Luna Nurblin, who is presumably the secret identity of Colonel Computron, is depicted in an extremely unflattering light. I suppose at the time it was rare for DC to depict a female character who’s not a statuesque beauty (and sadly it’s still rare), but Infantino makes her look disgustingly fat and invites the reader to laugh at her. There is also a Dr. Fate backup story by Martin Pasko, Steve Gerber and Keith Giffen. I don’t know what the division of labor was between Pasko and Gerber, but the story includes some Gerberesque touches, e.g. a supernatural entity that manifests as a farmer with overalls and a shotgun. And Inza Nelson is effectively portrayed as a bored and lonely housewife who is tired of sacrificing her own career for her husband’s. This must have been one of Gerber’s last works for either of the Big Two prior to Destroyer Duck. I ought to collect the other issues of Flash that included this backup series.

More reviews I forgot to post

6-16-14

HALO JONES #4 (Fleetway/Quality, 1987) – A. Three more Halo Jones stories this issue. The first and most memorable one focuses on Halo’s dog Toby. The second story is about a person of indeterminate gender who is so lacking in personality that no one can remember her. The ending to this story is predictable (Halo hears the person’s story, then immediately forgets about hir), but funny. I suppose it would be funny if I claimed I forgot this story as soon as I was done reading it, but that joke wouldn’t make sense out of context. The third story is a setup for future events. Again, this is all excellent but I wish the entire issue had consisted of Halo Jones material; it seems obvious that the filler material was added in order to stretch this series to 12 issues. As with the previous issue, the filler stories have some good art – by Barry Kitson and Ian Gibson – but they’re not at the level of Halo Jones.

THE INCREDIBLES #13 (Boom!, 2010) – B-. I followed this series when it came out, but somehow I missed this issue; maybe I stopped buying it when Landry Walker replaced Mark Waid as the writer. Turning The Incredibles into a comic book seems almost redundant; as a movie, it was unique in that it blended the superhero genre with Pixar animation, but as a comic book, it’s no different from any other comic book on the stands. Still, this comic had a Silver Age and all-ages sensibility that is quite rare in current superhero comics, and I love the characters so much that I jumped at the chance to read new stories about them. This specific issue, though, is not the best; it’s an intermediate chapter of a longer story and it doesn’t do much to advance the plot. And there are too many distracting references to the Rise of the Underminer video game. Easily the best part of the issue is where Dash comes home and finds a note from Bob saying that his mother and sister have been abducted by giant evil plants, and he has to babysit Jack-Jack. And Dash’s reaction is “I gotta babysit? No way!”

DAREDEVIL #3 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. At this point my favorite thing about this series is Chris Samnee’s art. I’m not enjoying the writing as much as I had been, because something about it is starting to annoy me. Maybe the problem is that the dialogue and plots are sometimes histrionic and overwritten. In particular, I loved the scene at the beginning where the Owl meets his informant in the woods, but I would have liked it better if the Owl hadn’t killed the informant for no real reason, just to demonstrate how evil he is; this is a serious cliché.

BACCHUS #41 (Eddie Campbell Comics, 1999) – A-. Despite its title, this was an anthology series that contained a wide range of Eddie Campbell material. The most interesting thing in this issue is a short story about Alan Moore’s new house. There are also a few other one-pagers, plus a long chapter of the Hermes vs. the Eyeball Kid saga, which I have never especially liked; it seems like little more than Eddie’s homage to Kirby. Still, any material by Eddie is worth reading. It’s too bad this issue also contains some non-Campbell stories which are pretty much unreadable.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #349 (Marvel, 1991) – B+. This was one of the first comic books I ever read. I bought it again because my existing copy, which came from a library, is falling apart. This issue is the first part of a two-parter involving the Black Fox and Dr. Doom, and it’s not one of David Michelinie’s best Spider-Man stories, but at least it is a quality Spider-Man story, unlike most of the next 100 or so issues of this series. The artwork is by Erik Larsen, and is fairly effective, though he was clearly imitating McFarlane.

TEEN TITANS #33 (DC, 2006) – D-. I hated this issue. Almost the entire issue is a conversation between Nightwing and Superboy, and all they talk about is how Superboy has no confidence, and how he thinks his Titans team sucks in comparison to Nightwing’s New Teen Titans. This would be fine if they didn’t spend the entire issue talking in circles about this same topic. Ultimately the result is that the reader becomes sick of Superboy’s whining. Also, to the extent that this issue has any kind of plot, it doesn’t make sense unless the reader has also been reading Infinite Crisis. I’m not going to buy any more back issues of Geoff Johns’s Titans; I thought I would like it better now that I’ve read PAD’s Young Justice, but I was wrong.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #3 (Marvel, 2000) – B+. This, on the other hand, was a fun comic, and it benefits from familiarity with PAD’s Hulk, since Marlo is a guest-star. The story is mostly just a long fight scene involving Genis, the Hulk and Wendigo, but it’s entertaining because of PAD’s dialogue and the interactions between Genis, Rick and Marlo.

WILDC.A.T.S #34 (Image, 1997) – A+. This is the best Alan Moore WildC.A.T.s that I‘ve read; it’s a brilliantly plotted single-issue story which makes effective use of surprise and misdirection. The story begins with a funeral, where an unidentified member of the WildC.A.T.s team is being buried; then there’s a flashback to the events leading up to the funeral, and then we cut back to the funeral again, and so on for the rest of the issue. At the end of each flashback scene, we think we know who’s being buried, but in the next funeral scene we find out we’re wrong. For example, one flashback ends with Maul appearing to have drowned, and then on the next page he arrives at the funeral late. And this pattern goes on throughout the issue, until we discover that the dead character is Tao, the villain of the current ongoing storyline. The way that Tao ends up getting killed is also very clever. Few writers other than Alan could have created such a virtuoso display of narrative trickery. The artwork, by Mat Broome, is just okay, but at least it’s not actively bad, unlike some of the other artwork on this series.

NEW MUTANTS #34 (Marvel, 2012) – B+. This is a fairly forgettable series but I actually enjoyed this issue. Abnett and Lanning show a good understanding of the New Mutants characters, especially Warlock, who is as wacky as ever. I’d buy more issues of this series if I found them for less than a dollar.

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #42 (Marvel, 1977) – B+. Another mediocre-looking comic book that turned out to be surprisingly good. This issue is a team-up between Werwolf by Night and Iron Man, which is a stupid premise, but the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with Master of Kung Fu, Werewolf by Night was one of the few series where Doug Moench’s trademark overwrought, wordy style of writing actually worked.

SEX #4 (Image, 2013) – C-. On its merits this is not that bad of a comic; Piotr Kowalski’s art is actually interesting. The main reason it annoys me is because of Joe Casey’s smug, arrogant essays at the end. His public persona annoys me enough to drive me away from his comics.

MISTER MIRACLE #3 (DC, 1971) – A+. This is a very basic and elemental Mr. Miracle story, but that’s what makes it fun. In this issue, Dr. Bedlam challenges Scott Free to a duel, and Scott accepts (oddly, since he’s putting his life at stake, it’s not clear what he has to gain if he wins). The challenge requires Scott to escape from the top floor of a building, but the catch is that all the people in the building have been driven nuts by Bedlam’s paranoia vapor. So basically half the issue involves Scott escaping from a mob of paranoid lunatics. It’s a lot of fun and it reminds me of the Zot! story “Getting to 99.” I just wish the issue didn’t end on a cliffhanger.

STORMWATCH #49 (Image, 1997) – A-. This is a type of comic I don’t usually like – an ultraviolent grim-and-gritty deconstructionist superhero story – but it’s a fairly good example of that genre. Like Squadron Supreme, this is a story in which superheroes take over the world, but they do it in a much more brutal and violent fashion and they themselves are much less sympathetic. I think the reason this works better than similar efforts, such as The Ultimates, is because number one, Warren Ellis is a quality writer who understands hwo to use violence as a storytelling device rather than for shock value. And number two, I don’t have any emotional attachments to the characters, so I’m okay with the cruel things that Ellis does to them.

SUB-MARINER #8 (Marvel, 1969) – B-. This is only an average issue, but it’s fun in the way that Silver Age Marvel comics typically are, and it includes some fairly good artwork by Marie Severin. I think this issue is the first appearance of the Serpent Crown, under that name rather than as the Helmet of Power. Lady Dorma, who is generally a damsel-in-distress, has a surprisingly prominent role in this issue.

SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT #1 (Eclipse, 1985) – C-. This series reprinted old pre-Code stories from Standard Comics. Most of the stories in this issue are very pedestrian, with thoroughly predictable endings, though one of them, “Doom in the Depths,” is notable because of the sheer amount of narrative content it includes. It’s only six or seven pages but it crams in enough plot for an entire novel, albeit at the expense of narrative logic or characterization. The quality of the artwork varies widely. There is one story with excellent art by Alex Toth, and another with interesting art by Jack Katz, who I only know from The First Kingdom. Overall, reading this issue makes me realize how much better EC comics were in comparison to other horror comics of the time.

SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT #3 (Eclipse, 1985) – A+. I award this comic an A+ on the basis of just one story: “The Crushed Gardenia,” which is one of Alex Toth’s greatest works. This story is a bravura display of minimalist artwork and effective storytelling, and even the lettering is gorgeous. The plot is exactly the sort of thing that Wertham hated; it involves a criminal who has a serious anger management problem and kills people for no good reason, and though he comes to a bad end, the reader still ultimately sympathizes with him more than with his victims. The other four stories in the issue are not nearly as exciting, though one of them has some nice art by Mort Meskin.

ADVENTURE COMICS #440 (DC, 1975) – A+. This is the last of Fleischer and Aparo’s classic Spectre stories. It begins with a classic example of what TVTropes calls Retirony: Jim Corrigan has changed back into a normal human being and is about to marry Gwen, but on the eve of his wedding, he is shot dead by criminals, and comes back to life as the Spectre. Of course he takes a horrible vengeance on his killers, but his dreams of a normal life are over. Like most of this run of Spectre stories, this story is grim and horrific to the point where it occasionally crosses the line into campiness; a particular example of this is the scene where Gwen opens her door and finds Jim’s corpse. This issue also includes a backup story which is drawn by Mike Grell from an unpublished script by Joe Samachson; sadly, this story is really dumb.

WEIRD SCIENCE #2 (Russ Cochran, 1992) – B-. None of the four stories in this EC reprint are classics, although most of them are at least interesting. The two best are the time travel story by Kurtzman, and the Wally Wood story about a mind-controlling alien. The opening story, “The Flying Saucer Invasion” by Al Feldstein, is unusual because of its very obvious satire of the U.S. government.

MANHUNTER #38 (DC, 2009) – B+. This is a fairly satisfying final issue of a series that was always interesting, though never great. This volume of Manhunter was a product of a brief period in the late ‘00s when DC actually made significant efforts to increase the diversity of their roster of superheroes. Kate Spencer is a rare example of a superhero who’s also a single mother working full-time. This issue is set in the future and takes place at her son’s graduation. It would make more sense if I was more familiar with the characters, but it’s still a very sweet story.

MARVEL KNIGHTS 4 #11 (Marvel, 2004) – D+/C-. This is a completely generic Fantastic Four story. There is little or nothing to distinguish it from any other recent FF comic. This series was an inauspicious start to Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa’s career.

JSA: THE LIBERTY FILE #1 (DC, 2000) – B-/C+ and most of that is for the artwork. I am a fan of Tony Harris, but I just don’t feel that this story (an Elseworlds set during World War II) is suited to his talents. My favorite thing about his art is his depictions of architecture, and there is almost none of that here. Besides that, this story is not interesting or well-written. The plot is confusing and I had no interest in the characters. Probably the trouble is that Tony Harris co-wrote this himself and he’s not a very good writer.

DEMON KNIGHTS #0 (DC, 2012) – A-. Despite being set in the New 52 universe, this Demon origin story would actually work in just about any version of the DCU. It plausibly explains how Etrigan ended up trapped in Jason Blood’s body, and Paul Cornell’s witty dialogue makes it fun to read. I especially liked how different types of demons are distinguished based on the kind of prose and/or poetry they speak, though this idea may not be original to Cornell.

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #626 (Marvel, 2013) – A. This was the last issue of this run that I hadn’t read. Like every issue of Kieron Gillen’s JIM, this comic is extremely well-plotted and well-dialogued; I think Kieron may be the best prose stylist in commercial comics at the moment. Dougie Braithwaite draws some excellent facial expressions although I don’t like the painted style of his artwork.

IMAGE FIRSTS: ZERO #1 (Image, 2014) – B+. This comic belongs to a genre, spy fiction, that I usually don’t like, and includes a lot of graphic violence, which I also don’t like. What makes it worthy of a B+ is Michael Walsh’s artwork. I had never heard of this artist before, but his art has a very European clear-line sensibility, much like the art of Michael Lark or Chris Samnee. His storytelling is clear and uncomplicated, and his page layouts are effective, making excellent use of white space. I’d be willing to read more of this comic just for the sake of the art.

Repost of an old reviews post I accidentally deleted

MANIFEST DESTINY #1 (DC, 2013) – A-. This is a good start to the series, though it’s not as cool as it would subsequently become, since there’s no Sacagawea yet. The fascinating thing about this series is that it recaptures the sense of America as a vast, unknown frontier. Because we as the readers don’t know anything yet about this version of America, we are essentially in the same position as Lewis and Clark, exploring this giant uncharted expanse of land that could contain literally anything. Another cool thing about this issue is that it focuses on the internal divisions in Lewis and Clark’s party, which includes both soldiers and pardoned criminals, who, as the end of this issue reveals, are still just as rotten as ever. It’s too bad this comic didn’t get nominated for an Eisner for Best New Series.

BATMAN #514 (DC, 1995) – B-. I’ve been aggressively buying Batman back issues because my Batman collection is a lot smaller than my Superman collection. Superman comics from the ‘70s are easy to find in cheap boxes, while Batman comics from the same period almost never show up there, possibly due to smaller print runs. And this is even true for more recent eras of Batman. Anyway, this issue is a fairly average Batman comic with the exception that the protagonist is not Batman but Dick Grayson. Doug Moench does an okay job of depicting Dick as unsure of his role as Batman and as unwilling to replace his mentor. It’s too bad that the writer, Doug Moench, wastes a number of pages on the plot, which is only interesting insofar as it gives Dick an excuse to fill the role of Batman.

FANTASTIC FOUR #229 (Marvel, 1981) – D-. I think Doug Moench was the worst FF writer ever. He wrote bad dialogue, his plots were uninteresting, and he was temperamentally unsuited to writing a classic superhero title. He was more suited to stuff like MOKF. This issue is a good example of why Moench failed as an FF writer. It introduces a boring new villain with a black hole gimmick, but somehow he manages to defeat the FF, who are so demoralized by this that they’re literally ready to lie down and die. And then the story continues into another issue, despite not being exciting enough for even one issue. No wonder John Byrne’s run on this title was seen as such a breath of fresh air.

PRINCELESS #3 (Action Lab, 2013) – B+/A-. My main problems with this series are that (1) the writing is a little amateurish and (2) the political intent of the story is so obvious that the characters sometimes seem secondary to it. This issue goes some distance toward resolving those problems, though. It introduces an exciting new character, Bedelia Smith the girl smith, who is a female engineer or artificer – a character type which is very rare in any kind of fiction and almost nonexistent in medieval fantasy stories. And her interactions with Princess Adrienne are pretty funny. I’m also starting to like Adrienne herself more. I want to keep going with this series.

BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #5 (DC, 2013) – A. This is as funny and cute as every other issue of the series. I think my favorite thing about this comic is Damian; he’s such an adorable little scoundrel. The first story is especially poignant because it focuses on Mr. Freeze, and draws out the ways in which he’s more of a tragic figure than an actual villain.

COURTNEY CRUMRIN #9 (Oni, 2013) – A-. I accidentally read this after #10 and I’m not sure how these two issues fit together in terms of plot. But this is a high-quality piece of work; it includes some fantastic artwork and it highlights the father-daughter relationship between Courtney and Uncle Al. I ought to reread this entire series in the proper order.

POWERPUFF GIRLS #2 (IDW, 2013) – B. This is not at the same level of quality as the MLP comic, but it’s funny and it seems very much in the spirit of the original cartoons. The lettering here is especially effective. I’m not sure which of the two credited letterers is responsible for the sound effects, but they add significantly to the visual appeal of each page. I like this issue enough that I’m willing to buy more of this series.

MARVEL TEAM-UP #28 (Marvel, 1974) – A-. The guest-star in this Conway/Mooney story is Hercules, one of my favorite second-tier Marvel heroes. This issue focuses less on his fun-loving nature than on his discomfort with the modern world, but he is an effective foil for Spider-Man. The issue ends with one of the silliest moments in any Marvel comic, in which Herc single-handedly pulls Manhattan Island back into place. This was so implausible, even by Marvel standards, that it seems to have been retconned shortly afterward. However, Hercules is almost the only Marvel character who you could almost imagine doing such a thing. At the same time, the issue itself admits the ridiculousness of this feat of strength, since it ends with a city commissioner yelling at Herc about the damage he did to the bridges and tunnels. This scene is ultimately funny rather than insulting to the reader’s intelligence. This story is also part of an ongoing unofficial crossover involving some mysterious villains known as They Who Wield Power. These characters were mentioned in a number of mid-‘70s Marvel comics written by Wein and Conway, but never actually appeared. I don’t know what Len had in mind with this storyline, but it was eventually resolved by Roger Stern in some Hulk comics that I haven’t read.

MS. MARVEL #3 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. On one level, this is just another classic teen superhero comic in the mold of early Spider-Man, Static, or Blue Beetle. The difference is that this sort of story almost always involves a male hero, of whatever ethnicity. One of the awesome things that G. Willow Wilson has done is that she’s proved that the classic superhero narrative works just as well with a female protagonist of color as with a white male protagonist. She is demonstrating that superheroes are for everyone, not just for white men, contrary to what some DC fans seem to think. In terms of positive depictions of female characters, another thing that struck me about this comic is the panel where Kamala gets caught by the lacrosse team, and all the girls on the team have notably different body types. They’re all quite stylized in appearance (e.g. one of them has an absurdly long neck) but they’re all stylized in different ways. This sort of diversity of female body types is something you never see in most superhero comics – look at the much-debated Teen Titans #1 cover for proof of this. And speaking of the art, Adrian Alphona is emerging as a star with this title. I don’t remember that his style was particularly distinctive or unusual when he was drawing Runaways, but it certainly is now. And he reminds me of Rob Guillory in the way he inserts cute messages into nearly every panel. Overall, this is the one Marvel comic that most excites me right now, and it’s a top candidate for next year’s Eisner for Best New Series.

ASTRO CITY #11 (DC, 2014) – A+. This is much lighter and less socially relevant than the epic that concluded last issue, but it’s hilarious, and reminds me that Kurt has a great sense of humor. This story is about Raitha McCann, the secretary to the Silver Adept, Astro City’s version of Dr. Strange and Zatanna. And it’s worth mentioning that this story focuses on the relationship between two female characters, one of whom is black and the other possibly Asian. The plot is just that the Silver Adept is impossibly overscheduled, but the problems that Raitha encounters in trying to manage her schedule are hilarious. The scene where three mystical beings show up unexpectedly is worth rereading just for the deadpan humor with which these bizarre characters are depicted. Of course, the highlight of the entire issue is the surprise appearance of the Tranquility Frog at the end. On Facebook, I told Kurt that I thought I deserved a Tranquility Frog for having read Astro City continuously since 1996, but he said there were only 6 of them in al of reality, and I was going to have to do more to earn one. ☹

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #4 (IDW, 2014) – A. This was tremendously fun. The quality of the non-Cook/Price issues of MLP is substantially increasing. Twilight Sparkle and Shining Armor initially seemed like an odd choice of a pairing for this series, which is supposed to focus on characters who don’t interact frequently. But it turns out that these two characters have had very few scenes together despite being siblings, so it makes sense. This issue gives us some insight into their childhood, and the scenes with little Twylie and Shining Armor are adorable (I’m almost jealous that my own relationship with my younger sisters was not nearly as good). And the main story gives them a chance to have another adventure together. There is also a lot of other cute stuff here, especially the Mario and Luigi ponies and the blind librarian Lexicon (though Anderson and Mebberson missed a chance to make the obvious analogy to Jorge Luis Borges).

CAPTAIN MARVEL #2 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. This issue is unfortunately missing Lieutenant Trouble, but it guest-stars Rocket Raccoon and Groot, which is perhaps even better. In fact, half of the fun of the issue comes from Rocket Raccoon’s antagonistic relationship with the cat that Carol is toting around for some reason I can’t recall. David Lopez’s artwork is effectively suited to this sort of story; he does an especially good job of depicting both human and animal facial expressions. I was very glad to see the recent story about how organized Carol Corps fandom is becoming a big thing, and I think this is at least partly because of the high quality of Carol’s comic. KSDC has single-handedly turned Carol into Marvel’s flagship female character.

RAT QUEENS #3 (Image, 2013) – A+. Unfortunately this comic is up against Sex Criminals on the Eisner ballot for Best New Series. In any other year, I would vote for it in an instant (and I think I do actually get to vote). Something I haven’t noticed before is the distinctiveness of the characters in this series. Betty is easily my favorite, because she’s so adorable and yet so unpredictable and dangerous. But the others all have equally unique personalities, even though they fulfill the very traditional D&D roles of fighter, thief, cleric and mage. I especially liked the reference to Violet having shaved her beard off.

MANIFEST DESTINY #6 (Image, 2014) – A. Another solid issue. Sacagawea again gets the chance to be utterly awesome, though there is no mention of her pregnancy. Besides that and the giant Venus flytrap, the other cool thing about this issue is that it reveals the difference in Lewis and Clark’s personalities. Their dreams while under the plant’s influence reveal that Lewis is a sensual lush, while Clark appears to be deeply troubled by his history of warfare against Indians. I’m curious to see what happens next. As a minor point, in the letters page, Mike from New Jersey complains that Lewis’s dialogue is not historically accurate, but I think it’s much closer to historical accuracy than is normal for comics set in earlier periods.

AMAZING X-MEN #6 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. I stopped reading Wolverine and the X-Men because I was buying it without reading it, and because the story seemed to have moved away from the characters I was most interested in. I bought this issue because Nightcrawler is among my favorite X-Men and I’ve been seeing good reviews of this series. This issue was enjoyably written, with Jason Aaron’s trademark humor. I didn’t even realize that the art was by Cameron Stewart until halfway through the comic, which perhaps suggests that the distinctive qualities of his art are being obscured by digital overproduction, but it’s still pretty good art. I will continue reading this series.

FANTASTIC FOUR #62 (Marvel, 1967) – A+. This part of the Lee/Kirby run is the absolute pinnacle of the superhero genre. From the #40s to the #60s, Stan and Jack were firing on all cylinders. They introduced a massive number of memorable characters and concepts, and they were both at the peak of their artistic talents. In this particular issue, page 8, a splash page where Reed is drifting to his seemingly inevitable death in the Negative Zone, is particularly striking because it’s possibly the best capsule summary of everything this series is about. Reed says “What a pity it is that it all must end so soon – before I have a chance to unravel the myriad mysteries of this strange, uncanny universe! But there will be others – those who come after me – and they will unlock the secrets of this cosmos – one buy one – for the mind of man is the greatest key in the world – the key which may one day unlock the door to immortality!” Except maybe for the part about immortality, that is the Fantastic Four in a nutshell. And this issue shows us a lot of the “myriad mysteries of this strange, uncanny universe.” For example, it introduces Blastaar, one of the better minor FF villains. And the Inhumans, who were then quite new characters, each get a chance to show off their talents. This issue also includes a two-page splash with a photocollage and some touching scenes where Johnny and Crystal are reunited, while Ben gripes about how love is just a lot of mush. Overall, this issue has everything you could ask for in a superhero comic.

SAVAGE DRAGON #194 (Image, 2014) – B. I had some pretty negative things to say about the last couple issues, but this one is an improvement. The best thing about Erik’s artwork is its evocation of Kirby, and this issue includes some awesome Kirbyesque stuff, including an amazing splash page depicting the Demonoid army. The story is getting slightly better. I’m concerned that Erik is depicting Malcolm’s black friends in a stereotypical way, but at least he’s trying to include multiple black characters. And the story ends with Malcolm making the difficult decision to kill a villain, which suggests that his character arc is at least going somewhere. Unfortunately, the backup story with Ricochet and Barbaric is horribly written. Every line of dialogue in the story is a cliché. I’d rather have a bunch of blank pages than some of the amateurish backup stories Erik has chosen to publish in this comic.

THREE #3, 4 and #5 (Image, 2013) – A for all. My primary problem with this series is that the characterization seemed to be secondary to Kieron’s political project of critiquing Frank Miller’s depiction of Sparta. I think that is still true, but at least in these issues, Terpander, Klaros and Damar all emerge as distinctive, individualized characters. I want them to escape to Messene, I mourn Terpander and Klaros’s tragic fate, and I’m comforted when Damar manages to escape and continue their legacy. Kieron and Ryan Kelly also succeed at creating an evocative depiction of ancient Greece. After I finished issue 5, I kept spontaneously recalling the way the people and characters of Sparta looked, because Kieron and Ryan’s portrayal of ancient Sparta was so immersive. The fascinating interviews with Professor Stephen Hodkinson at the end of each issue are evidence that Kieron was not just trying to prove a political point with this series, he and Ryan were also doing their best to produce a historically plausible recreation of ancient times. And while they graphically depict Sparta as a horrible, dysfunctional slave society, they also suggest that it had its positive aspects. For example, in the scene where Nestos’s mother disowns him, I’m impressed both by her poise and confidence, and by the fact that a woman managed to achieve such wealth and power in such sexist times. Three was worthy of an Eisner nomination for Best Limited Series, and I’m surprised it didn’t get one.

MORNING GLORIES #35, 36 and 37 (Image, 2013-2014) – B+ for all. I haven’t been able to follow the plot of this series since about issue 12. Now it’s so convoluted and confusing that Matthew Meylikhov’s annotations are essential to figure out what’s going on. These issues are all still quite readable, and each of them ends with an appropriately shocking cliffhanger, but I do wonder where this story is going and how much longer it will take to get there.

AMERICAN VAMPIRE #4 (Vertigo, 2010) – C+/B-. Both stories in this issue are part four of their respective storylines, and neither story makes any effort to explain what’s been going on, so I was completely unable to follow the plot. Scott Snyder’s story seemed much better written than Stephen King’s.

THUNDERBOLTS #11 (Marvel, 1998) – B+. I would classify this series as one of Kurt Busiek’s second-tier works, as opposed to things like Astro City and Superman: Secret Identity, which are clearly much more personal and deeply felt. I remember that a long time ago, Kurt said something to the effect that his chronic health problems prevented him from writing Astro City but that he was still able to write Avengers and Thunderbolts. The most interesting thing about Thunderbolts is the characterization of the former Masters of Evil, who start out as villains pretending to be heroes and gradually evolve into the real thing. This issue does a good job of advancing that narrative arc, although it sometimes takes itself too seriously, and Kurt’s dialogue here is not his best.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #603 (Marvel, 2010) – C+. I was initially very impressed by Brubaker’s Cap, but eventually I got bored with it; the plots seemed repetitive and uninteresting, and I never especially cared about Bucky Barnes as a character. Reading this issue, I never felt particularly excited. The one thing I did like about this issue was Butch Guice’s artwork, which includes at least one deliberate homage to Steranko.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #23 (Marvel, 1972) – B-. Mike Friedrich’s writing was always awkward and histrionic, and Wayne Boring’s artwork lives up to his surname (I did not make up that pun). The thing I do like about this story is its depiction of the evolving relationship between Mar-Vell and Rick, which is almost a love triangle since the third party is Rick’s girlfriend Lou Ann. This story also appears to be the first appearance of the Nega-Bands.

CRITTERS #7 (Fantagraphics, 1987) – A-. The primary attraction in this comic is the early Usagi story, which introduces Ino the blind swordspig and depicts how he gets his prosthetic nose. However, the other stories in this issue are more than just filler. First, there is a story by the Danish Disney artist Freddy Milton, featuring his original character Gnuff. This is surprisingly funny and well-plotted, although it’s drawn in a very Barksian style and Gnuff is barely distingushable from Donald Duck. There is also a four-pager by Sam Kieth, which is almost devoid of plot but impressively drawn.

GROO THE WANDERER #21 (Epic, 1986) – B-. In this issue, Groo acts stupid, fails spectacularly at everything he tries to achieve, and causes a series of horrible disasters, despite having good intentions. The issue is brilliantly drawn by Sergio Aragonés and is enlivened by Mark Evanier’s witty dialogue. Also, the issue begins with a poem and ends with a moral, and includes a cleverly hidden message. Oh wait, I just described every issue of Groo ever. This issue is rather pointless and scattershot, even by Groo standards. It introduces Arba, Dakarba and Grativo, but is more a series of gags than an actual story. Some of these gags are quite funny – especially when Arba and Dakarba create a bunch of duplicates of Groo, and then someone says “as any fool can plainly see,” and all the Groos respond “WE CAN PLAINLY SEE THAT!”

DAREDEVIL #1.50 (Marvel, 2014) – A. The Waid-Rodriguez story that takes up most of this issue is genuinely powerful. It’s well-plotted and attractively drawn, and it gives you a sense of what Marvel comics might be like if the characters were actually allowed to age. Mark Waid suggests some fascinating parallels between Matt’s relationship with his father and with his son; it’s especially satisfying when the story ends with Matt’s son saving him from being hit by a truck. It’s cute how the mother of Matt’s son is never identified, like the mothers of Batman Jr and Superman Jr in Bob Haney’s Super-Sons stories. I’m almost sorry this story has such a neat and conclusive resolution, because I’d like to see future stories set in this universe. The other two stories are much less interesting, but the Kesel/Palmer story is a rather touching tribute to Gene Colan.

PROPHET #36, 39 and 40 (Image, 2013) – A- for all. I almost feel like I’m not missing much by reading this series sporadically, because the plot is much less important than the worldbuilding. The fascinating thing about Prophet is how Brandon Graham and his collaborators create a universe which is completely bizarre, unlike anything I would ever have imagined, but which is internally consistent and has a strange sort of logic. Prophet reminds me a bit of European science fiction comics like the work of Moebius and Druillet. I also like how Brandon Graham now includes his drawn scripts at the end of each issue.

DAREDEVIL #27 (Marvel, 1967) – A-. This issue is hilarious, but the humor is mostly unintentional, because Mike Murdock was probably the silliest plot device Stan Lee ever came up with. It strains suspension of disbelief to accept that Karen and Foggy were actually fooled into thinking Matt and Mike weren’t the same person. The primary appeal of this comic is Gene Colan’s artwork. Stilt-Man is obviously a ludicrous villain, but the nature of his powers gave Colan an excuse to create some bizarre vertically formatted pages.

IDW COMING ATTRACTIONS #1 (IDW, 2009) – C+. The only thing here that’s of any interest is an eight-page preview of Darwyn Cooke’s Parker. This is not a complete story but it includes some gorgeous artwork, with lush coloring and lettering. The rest of the issue is full of one- or two-page previews, as well as a reprint of part of a Rocketeer story that I already have in its original form.

USAGI YOJIMBO #40 (Dark Horse, 2000) – A+. Grasscutter II did not exactly live up to the original, but it was still an impressive Usagi epic. One fascinating thing about the first Grasscutter story was how it integrated Usagi and his supporting cast into a larger context of Edo period politics (as well as ancient Japanese myth). The scene where Usagi finds Grasscutter, and then has to decide what to do with it, is perhaps the closest he ever comes to changing the history of his nation. In issue 40, which is the first part of Grasscutter II, Stan reminds us that the sword is still a political hot potato, and that the future of Japan rests on whether Usagi and his allies are able to deliver it to safekeeping. This issue is an effective setup to a major Usagi storyline.

I KILL GIANTS #6 (Image, 2008) – A-. I’ve wanted to read this series for a while. Not having read the first five issues, I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but the story creates a powerful sense of tension, Ken Niimura’s art and storytelling is fantastic. The bunny-eared protagonist has a distinctive and bizarre appearance, and the monster that she fights is massive and frightening in appearance, reminding me a lot of the bosses in Shadow of the Colossus.

PEEP SHOW #1 (Drawn & Quarterly, 1992) – no rating. I found this comic deeply troubling. Joe Matt is a very talented cartoonist, but he depicts himself in such an unfavorable light that he completely loses the reader’s sympathy. This comic creates the impression that Joe is a sex-addicted, misogynistic, lazy troglodyte, not to mention a domestic abuser – he shows himself giving his girlfriend a black eye, and if this really happened, then I find it utterly unforgivable and I can’t understand why anyone in the comics community is willing to associate with him. (You also have to wonder why Seth and Chester Brown would be friends with such an awful man.) The question then becomes why he would create such an unflattering picture of himself, and I suppose the answer is because he’s trying to tell the unvarnished truth, but I don’t know if that’s a good enough excuse. Another disturbing thing about this comic is its depiction of women. Joe’s girlfriend Trish is a far more sympathetic character than Joe himself, and is invariably on the right side of their arguments. Yet it sometimes seems like the reader is expected to side with Joe just because he’s the author and the protagonist. And the way he objectifies Frankie, the girl he’s obsessed with, is also a little creepy. She’s not drawn in a tasteless way, and yet it seems like Joe only sees her as a sex object and not as a person. I think that Joe the protagonist (as opposed to Joe the author) is aware of this problem, but maybe not aware enough. Overall I would say that this is a deeply intriguing comic, but also a problematic one.

NAUGHTY BITS #17 (Fantagraphics, 1995) – A+. Roberta Gregory is an extremely underrated creator. According to Google Scholar, there’s only been one paper published about her since 2010, which is surprising because her work seems highly relevant to discussions of feminism, sexuality and LGBT identity in comics. Bitchy Bitch herself is a fascinating character. I don’t think she’s intended to be an autobiographical portrait of Roberta herself – this is emphasized by the panels where she and Roberta appear together. And she has obvious and massive flaws that prevent the reader from fully sympathizing with or admiring her; she’s prejudiced, dishonest, selfish, and irritable. But I still kind of love her just because of the strength of her personality. Roberta’s stories are riotously funny, but the humor sort of disguises the fact that they’re also extremely deep explorations of sex and gender in American society. For example, this issue, which is part three of “Bitchy’s College Daze,” is interesting because of its ambivalence. Bitchy is eager to go off to college and escape her hidebound conservative parents, and yet the second-wave feminist ideas she encounters at college are too radical for her. As a reader, I condemn her for her homophobia and her anti-feminism, but I also sort of sympathize because of where she’s coming from. The other cool thing about this comic is Roberta’s art, which is often wildly exaggerated and cartoony; again, this is not just useful for humor value, it also helps tone down the seriousness of the content of the stories.

Old reviews I never posted

When compiling my master list of all the comics reviewed for my blog, I realized I had never posted the following reviews I wrote last October:

10-25-13

LAZARUS #4 (Image, 2013) – The best new series of 2013 (so far) finishes its opening arc, as Forever survives Johanna and Jonah’s assassination attempt, but Johanna manipulates her into believing Jonah was solely responsible. This series is becoming a damning condemnation of corporate capitalism and the concentration of economic power into private hands. Throughout this series, we’ve seen that the Family system benefits no one at all except the very few at the top – there is not even a pretense that prosperity will “trickle down.” And the people at the top are completely undeserving of their incredible degree of privilege. Johanna and Jonah have virtually all the power in the world, but all they care about is getting even more. They have far less humanity than Forever, who is barely human at all. (I’m reminded of Jack in Bioshock, which incidentally is referenced in this issue’s letter column, but to say why would be a spoiler.) But since this is a work of fiction and not real life, I remain hopeful that Forever will realize how thoroughly she’s been manipulated, and that she will be a force for positive change. Grade: A+

SANDMAN #39 (DC, 1992) – I read this issue long ago in trade paperback form but it’s mostly vanished from my memory. “Soft Places” is not Gaiman’s best story from Fables & Reflections (I much prefer “Three Septembers and a January,” the one about Emperor Norton), but it’s reasonably good. There is a guest appearance by Fiddler’s Green, one of the best characters in the series, and some bizarre time paradoxes. John Watkiss is not a great draftsman but his artwork is effectively suited to the story. The fact that this story is about Marco Polo makes it reminiscent of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In fact, at one point Rustichello says that Marco Polo “went out to all the cities in his [Kublai Khan’s] empire and came home and described them to him,” which makes me wonder whether Gaiman specifically had Invisible Cities in mind when writing this story. Grade: A-

YOUNG JUSTICE #6 (DC, 2011) – This is the best issue of this Young Justice series that I’ve read. Possibly as an homage to a classic issue of the original Young Justice, this issue depicts the characters camping out and sharing their origin stories. Art Baltazar and Franco effectively capture each of the characters’ personalities, especially that of Miss Martian, an awesome character who never got nearly enough exposure in the regular DCU. (Which is a misnomer – the DCAU is much better than the regular DCU and it really ought to be the primary DC universe.) A weird piece of information here is that Miss Martian has twenty-nine siblings; how does that work? Grade: A

Addendum to open letter

I applaud Kurtis J. Wiebe for his swift and forthright decision to remove Roc Upchurch from Rat Queens. I will continue to read this series with a clear conscience, and I hope this decision will set a precedent showing that our community does not tolerate domestic abuse.

Open letter to Eric Stephenson

I just sent the following letter to Eric Stephenson:

Dear Mr. Stephenson,

As a comics fan and scholar who regularly teaches Image comics in college courses, I would like to urge you in the strongest possible terms to condemn Roc Upchurch’s recent alleged spousal abuse and to disavow any further association with him. In your public statements as the publisher of America’s leading independent comic book company, you have come out powerfully against misogyny and in favor of greater inclusion of women in the comics industry. I hope that you will act in accordance with these positions by publicly disassociating yourself from a man who beat his wife, and tried to excuse having done so on the grounds that he was angry with her. I will be posting this letter to my Facebook page.

Best wishes,

Aaron Kashtan, Ph.D.

I will be happy to retract this letter if it turns out that the allegations against Roc Upchurch are false, but I feel that it’s my responsibility, as a comics fan who enjoys male privilege, to speak out against this sort of behavior.

Reviews for the past two weeks

11-16-14

Just to clarify one thing: I write these reviews for my own benefit, to make sure that I actually remember all the comic books I read. Whether they have any kind of an audience is almost beside the point.

USAGI YOJIMBO #2 (Dark Horse, 1996) – A+. The indicia box on the cover says “2 of 3,” indicating that Stan didn’t expect this series to last long. This issue is part two of “Noodles,” which was nominated for an Eisner. It’s a heartwrenching story because of the title character, a mute giant who is crucified as a scapegoat for someone else’s crimes. Kitsune is one of this series’ most memorable characters and this issue is perhaps her finest hour, because of her outrage at Noodle’s death and the brilliant way in which she avenges him.

DEATH GRUB #1 (Image, 2008) – B-. This is a 24-hour comic by Ryan Ottley, the artist on Invincible. It’s mostly just a series of silly jokes involving a superhero and a giant monster, but it’s funny. I found this in the 50-cent box at the Book Nook in Atlanta, and I was hesitant to pay even 50 cents for this, but I’m glad I did. I actually would be happy to see another issue of this.

THE FOX AND THE CROW #103 (DC, 1967) – B+. I think the title feature in this series is DC’s longest-running feature by a single artist, but the real attraction here is the Stanley and His Monster story. This is written by Arnold Drake, but it reminds me of a story by Sheldon Mayer or even Bill Watterson, because of the whimsical humor and the child character’s overactive imagination. The actual Fox and Crow stories, however, are just typical funny animal material.

GROO THE WANDERER #72 (Marvel, 1990) – A+. In this issue, Groo acts stupid, fails spectacularly at everything he tries to achieve, and causes a series of horrible disasters, despite having good intentions. The issue is brilliantly drawn by Sergio Aragonés and is enlivened by Mark Evanier’s witty dialogue. Also, the issue begins with a poem and ends with a moral, and includes a cleverly hidden message. Oh wait, I just described every issue of Groo ever. This issue introduces the Shaman, who is like the Sage but even less scrupulous. The reason the Shaman appears here instead of the Sage is probably because he commits suicide at the end, having been driven to despair by the stuff Groo causes to happen to him. This is a rather brutal and bleak ending for a Groo story.

LETTER 44 #1 (Oni, 2013) – B-. This comic is about a new U.S. President, a thinly disguised version of Obama, who discovers on his inauguration day that American astronauts are about to make first contact with aliens. This is a reasonably interesting comic and it sets up some intriguing plot threads, including the one astronaut’s pregnancy. It’s not good enough that I would pay full price for subsequent issues, though.

RED SONJA #1 (Dynamite, 2013) – B-. This is the first of Gail’s Red Sonja comics that I’ve read. I have lost much of my former enthusiasm for Gail’s writing; I still enjoy her Wonder Woman and Secret Six, but I just don’t think she’s that great of a writer compared to her contemporaries. This issue is reasonably well-written and includes one awesome scene where Sonja gets dressed up in a gown and is not happy about it, but I strongly dislike the artwork. Walter Geovani’s facial expressions are just bizarre.

BATMAN #364 (DC, 1983) – B. Doug Moench wrote Batman in a very awkward way; he just didn’t seem to understand the character very well. This issue is not as bad, though. It involves a series of thefts being committed by one of the members of Jason Todd’s circus, so the focus is primarily on Jason, who was a marginally less annoying character when written by Doug. Unfortunately the identity of the thief is so obvious that I wasn’t even sure if it was supposed to be a secret. The artwork, by Don Newton, would be excellent if it weren’t ruined by overpowering inks by Alfredo Alcala. I wonder why DC employed Alcala as an inker rather than a penciller.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN #88 (Marvel, 1978) – A+. Thomas, Buscema and Chan’s adaptation of “Queen of the Black Coast” was a massive epic that spanned more than 40 issues. This issue is the conclusion to one significant chunk of that storyline. In this issue, the slave-girl Neftha (whose name is repeatedly spelled wrong) turns out to be the sister of the king of Stygia, who Belit subsequently kills after discovering that he had her father murdered. More stuff happens in this issue than in five issues of a typical comic book, and it also guest-stars Zula, one of Roy’s best original creations. It’s been a while since I’ve read a new (to me) issue of this Conan series, and I’d forgotten how good it is. BWS’s Conan gets all the credit, but Buscema and Chan’s Conan was more consistent and tended to have a higher level of storytelling.

SUPERMAN #373 (DC, 1982) – C-. As mentioned in my review of #375 above, Vartox is a character I will never understand. Besides that, this issue is also hampered by its rather sexist portrayal of Lana Lang. Cary Bates tries to get us to believe that she became a newswoman to get over her disappointment at being dumped by Clark, and that her career is just compensation for her frustrated love life. The sexism here goes without saying. The backup story is more promising because it guest-stars Supergirl, but it’s ruined by the ending, in which Clark behaves very rudely to Kara for no good reason.

CRITTERS #27 (Fantagraphics, 1988) – A-. This issue gets an A because of the Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy story. This is the first appearance of these characters that I’ve read, and it’s also perhaps the funniest Stan Sakai story I’ve read; as my review of Usagi #2 above indicates, Stan’s work is often so grim that I forget how funny he can be. The most memorable moment here is when a priest shows Nilson and Hermy a gigantic pearl bigger than an adult human being, and then Hermy says he’d love to see the oyster that made it, and the priest says “Here it is!” and pulls out a normal-size oyster. There is also a lot of less subtle humor here, including the ending, where the pearl crashes through a building like a giant bowling ball. This issue only gets an A- for the other stories, which are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

CRITTERS SPECIAL #1 (Fantagraphics, 1988) – A. This title only appears in the indicia; the title says “The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy.” This issue begins with reprints of Nilson and Hermy’s first two appearances, which were published in Albedo #1 and #2 in 1983 or 1984, meaning they predate the first appearance of Usagi. The second of these stories includes some impressive cross-hatching, but overall Stan’s work here is pretty crude, and the plots and setting are overly reliant on standard epic fantasy tropes. Even the lettering is primitive. The third story, “Game of Death,” is a new sequel to the first two, and shows that Stan’s style had evolved tremendously over the intervening four or five years. Its artwork is much closer to Stan’s mature style, and it ends with a nice twist in which Nilson fakes his own death. Overall this issue is a good introduction to Stan’s second most important work.

WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #244 (DC, 244) – D+/C-. This issue includes five stories, all of which are poorly written, and four of which are poorly drawn. The exception is the Batman/Superman story, which has effective art by José Luis García-Lopez. Unfortunately his realistic style clashes with the blatant implausibility of Bob Haney’s plot, in which a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic future tries to use red sun radiation to blow up the world. This is actually not that farfetched for Haney, but José Luis’s artwork is so beautifully realistic that reading this story is almost like reading a duck comic drawn by Alex Ross, or something like that. This story almost creates an uncanny valley effect. This issue also includes Black Canary and Green Arrow stories drawn by self-proclaimed messiah Mike Nasser, who imitates the surface trappings of Neal Adams’s style but without any of Neal Adams’s deep understanding of layout and composition.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #43 (DC, 1966) – B/B+. This is an entertaining story which is notable as the first appearance of the Royal Flush Gang. It’s full of humorously bad card-related puns. However, this story makes me realize something about Gardner Fox: his plots were overly reliant on meaningless nonsense and handwaving, and this may be why he is not remembered as a good writer of prose SF. For instance, in this issue, the Royal Flush Gang uses something called “stellaration” to cause the Justice Leaguers to suffer from a variety of ailments, including blindness and a tendency to be overly disagreeable. The Justice Leaguers beat this problem by injecting Snapper Carr with stellaration. But there is never any explanation of what stellaration is or how it works – it’s just an example of Applied Phlebotinum, which is a technique that Gardner relied upon excessively.

VILLAINS UNITED #2 (DC, 2005) – B+/A-. This is a better example of a Gail Simone comic because the characterization is fascinating. All the members of the new Secret Six are unique characters with distinctive flaws, and this makes me want to keep reading the series. Also, the artwork is only average but at least it doesn’t detract from the story.

MANHUNTER #1 (DC, 2004) – C+/B-. The only truly innovative aspect of this series is that it’s a superhero comic about a divorced single mother, and there’s not enough of that in this issue. I like Kate Spencer as a character, but this issue is excessively grim and violent. The central plot point here is that Copperhead, a notorious mass murderer, is found not guilty of his latest crime by reason of insanity, and of course when they take him to jail, he escapes and kills more people. And after Copperhead is sentenced, Kate points out that this sort of thing happens all the time in the DC Universe. This is completely true, and it makes you realize that in the DCU, the government is not capable of protecting its citizens from criminals, which is kind of quite depressing.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #153 (DC, 1978) – B. Gerry Conway’s Justice League was a massive drop in quality compared to Englehart’s Justice League, but in terms of characterization, it was a lot better than the norm for this series. That having been said, I did find it annoying that on the second page of this issue, Green Arrow flies into a rage for no reason. This is the sort of “characterization” that works by exaggerating the character’s most obvious traits; I guess it’s what TVTropes calls Flanderization. Anyway, besides that, this story is interesting because it introduces Ultraa, the only superhero on Earth-Prime. So there’s a lot of fascinating metatextual stuff here. In particular, during the issue we learn that the JLA have been drawn from Earth-1 to Earth-Prime because thousands of readers have been concentrating on them at once. This is kind of a literal example of metalepsis, the narrative technique that involves interaction between a story and its frame story. The main thing I disliked about this issue was the lack of Dick Dillin artwork; he must have been sick that month or something.

AVENGERS VS. THE PET AVENGERS #4 (Marvel, 2011) – B+. This was a very quick read but it was a lot of fun. I feel like Chris Eliopoulos’s Pet Avengers stories never fully lived up to their potential; there were other writers who could have made this material even funnier and cuter. But this issue is certainly quite funny and cute, and it ends with an adorable two-page splash depicting a bunch of baby dragons. It was a shame when Nate Cosby left Marvel, because he was the only editor who was willing to develop projects like this.

HER-OES #1 (Marvel, 2010) – D+. This is the kind of thing that gives female-oriented superhero comics a bad reputation. The cover makes it look like a superhero comic with an entirely female cast. But it turns out that this isn’t a superhero comic at all; it’s a high school romantic comedy where the characters happen to be superheroes. In this story, Janet van Dyne goes through a bunch of boring and clichéd high school drama. She develops a crush on a boy who she knows nothing about, and then Namora, who in this universe is a stuck-up foreign exchange student, tells her to stay away from him, and that’s it. I realize I’m not the target audience for this comic book, but I feel that if I was in the target audience, I would dislike it and would find it insulting. It’s as if in publishing this comic, Marvel accepted the incorrect belief that girls don’t like superhero comics, and instead chose to publish a chick-lit story (I apologize for the offensive term) with cosmetic superhero trappings. Now as a footnote to that, I have not read Supurbia, which more or less fits that description and is by the same writer, but I feel like Supurbia is a different case because it doesn’t try to market itself as a normal superhero story. Anyway, I think when you compare this comic to Ms. Marvel, which has the same editor, you realize how much progress Marvel has made over the past couple years in terms of outreach to female readers.

GOTHAM ACADEMY #2 (DC, 2014) – B+/A-. This issue was less impressive than issue 1, mostly because Maps only appeared on a few pages, but it was still a ton of fun and I can’t wait for the next issue. Maybe the biggest asset this series has is Karl Kerschl’s artwork. I enjoyed his art on Teen Titans: Year One, but I don’t remember him being this good. His facial expressions are just amazing.

SAGA #24 (Image, 2014) – A+. This is easily the best comic of the past two weeks, and when I got to page 10, I literally applauded. (SPOILER WARNING) Lying Cat’s reappearance was just such a triumphant and beautiful moment. And there are so many other wonderful things here, like the little seal dude in overalls, whose name is pronounced Ghüs and not Goose. I’m sorry that Saga is going on hiatus for a few months, because this issue reminds me why it’s the best comic book of the 2010s.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #9 (2014) – A/A+. Okay, let’s see if I can do this. This issue did not make me hiss. In fact it made me laugh a lot, especially at the point where Carol cleverly avoids saying that the prince is hot. The central conceit of this issue is absurd, but Kelly Sue handles it with the lightness of a bird. But how sad is it that Tic has a lifespan of only 20 years? That makes me want to break out in tears. I was just speaking with someone who doesn’t like David Lopez’s art, but I think as an artist he has a lot of heart.

I AM GROOT #5 (I Am Groot, 2014) – I am Groot. #I am Groot. (I am Groot. – I am Groot?! I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot?! I AM GROOT! – I am Groot. I am Groot! I am Groot. I AM GROOT! – I am Groot. “I am Groot. I… am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot. I am Groot! I am Groot. I am Groot. I… am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I AM GROOT! I am Groot? I AM GROOT! I am Groot. I am Groot. I… am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot?! I am Groot! I AM GROOT! I… am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot! I am Groot. I AM GROOT! I AM GROOT!

(Translation: ROCKET RACCOON #5 (Marvel, 2014) – A+ The joke in this issue is that it’s a story told by Groot to some campers, and every line of dialogue in the issue – not to mention all the lettering on signs, posters, etc. – is “I AM GROOT.” It’s kind of an obvious joke, but what’s amazing is that Skottie Young manages to pull it off without sacrificing the intelligibility of the story. I don’t know whether Young or Jake Parker was responsible for the breakdowns, but their visual storytelling is so clear that the story makes perfect sense despite the lack of any understandable dialogue. And it’s also hilarious. As was pointed out by someone to whom I described this issue, it’s like a funny version of the Pizza Dog issue of Hawkeye.)

PENNY DORA AND THE WISHING BOX #1 (Image, 2014) – C-. I had high hopes for this comic, but found it disappointing. This comic is obviously intended for a very young audience, because the story is very basic – although I realize that’s kind of an insulting comment now that I realize the story was written by the writer’s 8-year-old daughter. (On the other hand, compare this to Axe Cop or Mike and Katie Mignola’s “The Magician and the Snake.”) And I don’t like Sina Grace’s artwork at all. Her storytelling is reasonably good but her anatomy and facial expressions are not; she draws 10-year-old girls with the faces of adults. I’ll stick with this series for another issue or two, but I do not find it especially promising.

BATGIRL #36 (DC, 2014) – A. Because some of my friends have recently expressed dislike for this series in very strong terms, I came into this issue with some trepidation, but I actually loved it. My friends’ primary complaint about this series is the excessive amount of dialogue. I didn’t think this was a problem. My main issue, if anything, is that it’s classist, because Batgirl has a type of urban, technology-based lifestyle that’s mostly available to rich white people. Other than that, though, this comic is awesome and I can’t wait to write about it in my ICFA 2015 paper. Cameron Stewart is a fantastic visual storyteller and Babs Tarr’s draftspersonship is gorgeous. I would characterize this story as dense rather than cluttered. I like the characterization, though it’s a little trite sometimes, and I love how digital technology is a significant element in the plot. Offhand, I can only think of one other comic that shows such a deep understanding of digital technology, and that’s Ed Piskor’s Wizzywig.

SUPERGIRL #4 (DC, 1996) – B+. This would have earned a higher grade except that I initially couldn’t figure out what was going on. This issue is a Final Night crossover, but there is no indication of that on the cover. Other than that, this is a fun and well-drawn comic, involving an exciting battle between Supergirl and Grodd. Gary Frank’s art has degenerated as his career has gone on, but at this point he was more or less at his peak.

AQUAMAN #27 (DC, 1966) – B-. Not one of Haney and Cardy’s better Aquaman stories. I think my favorite things about this version of Aquaman are, first, Cardy’s artwork, especially the way he draws Mera, and second, the affectionate family relationship among the main characters. This issue, though, is mostly devoted to a typically bizarre Haneyesque plot involving an alien who collects sea creatures from multiple planets. Nick Cardy could draw a lot of things extremely well, but aliens were not one of them.

SHE-HULK #10 (Marvel, 2014) – B+/A-. As a finale to the “Good Old Days” three-parter, this is disappointing because half the issue is a Captain America story. If I wanted to read about Captain America, I’d be buying his series instead of She-Hulk. It is a pretty effective Captain America story, but I do think it’s a little disturbing that in the flashback sequence, the only thing that’s in vivid color is Cap’s eyes. It’s an unpleasant reminder that Cap is basically an Aryan superman. In the present-day sequence, the two pages depicting the closing arguments are amazing – I didn’t think it was possible to do an effective comics page that’s just a single drawing with no background and 20 word balloons, but Javier Pulido pulls it off. Because these two pages are next to each other, they create the impression that Matt and Jen are facing off in a debate. And the reader is placed in the position of the jury, having to decide which of them is right. And unfortunately I have to admit that if I’d been on the jury, I’d have voted for Matt because I think his argument is just better, which is another problem with this story. And I was disappointed by the explanation for why Cap seemed to be deliberately trying to lose his case. Oh well – I’m being rather harsh, but this is a good issue of an excellent title which is getting cancelled way too soon.

IMAGE FIRSTS: THE REVIVAL #1 (Image, 2013) – A-. I love the idea behind this series because I grew up in Minneapolis, which, while very different from Wausau, Wisconsin (a real place), is also quite similar in terms of culture and climate. Dana is a compelling and multifaceted character, and this issue is an effective introduction to her and to her milieu. I actually think the setting of this series is more interesting than the plot – I’d be interested in reading this comic even if it didn’t have any zombies.

SIX-GUN GORILLA #1 (Boom!, 2013) – A-. I think I have this entire series, but so far I’ve only read one issue of it. Six-Gun Gorilla has sort of a 2000 AD sensibility, which is difficult to define except that it’s not the same as the typical American comics sensibility. The premise, involving soldiers going to war so that bored rich people can vicariously experience their deaths, is fascinating, and Jeff Stokely’s art is gorgeous. And this comic would be worth reading just for the title. I look forward to reading more of this.

TERRIBLE LIZARD #1 (Oni, 2014) – A-. This is a promising start to a new miniseries by Cullen Bunn and Drew Moss. I more or less enjoyed the first TPB of The Sixth Gun, but didn’t feel compelled to keep reading it; however, this series is instantly captivating. I love the idea of a giant tyrannosaurus imprinting on a 14-year-old girl. This is kind of the same premise as Super Dinosaur (with the exception that the dinosaur isn’t intelligent), but in that series it often feels like Kirkman and Howard are trying too hard to have fun; in this issue, I don’t get that impression at all. My only complaint is about the art: the perspective in the first panel of page 6 is difficult to reconcile with the perspective in the first panel of page 9.

ARCHIE #286 (Archie, 1979) – B-. This comic is very much like every other Archie comic of its time, and it took me about five minutes to read. But it’s fun in an inoffensive and forgettable way. I think the best story here is the first one, where Archie’s parents get annoyed with him because he’s walking around wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off shorts.

SKYWARD FCBD 2014 (Action Lab, 2014) – B/B-. Unfortunately Jeremy Dale just passed away at a shockingly young age. Until reading this comic I wasn’t familiar with his work, but his death was a tragic loss to our community. This FCBD comic is maybe not the best introduction to his work, though, because it’s just a bunch of backstory and the main character of the series only appears at the end. I would be interested in reading some more of his work, though. I actually preferred this issue’s backup story, featuring Midnight Tiger, which reminds me of Milestone comics in the way it addresses questions of race. Action Lab is producing some interesting work, though their production values are not the best.

BATMAN ’66 #8 (DC, 2014) – B+. The two stories in this issue are both by the same artist, Ruben Procopio, and yet they look completely different, because the backup story is painted by him while the lead story is digitally colored by someone else. The backup story is the better of the two by far. Both stories are exciting and hilariously campy at the same time. I like this series a lot better than the TV show that it’s based on, and I think Jeff Parker has a talent for creating pastiches that are better than the original, because X-Men: First Class is also much better than the actual Lee-Kirby X-Men. Also, the second story plays with Native American stereotypes in a funny way.

SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN #74 (1964) – A-. On first glance this looked like a terrible comic, only worth owning for the sake of completism. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was hilarious. Many DC comics of this period were unintentionally funny, and others tried to be funny and failed miserably, but this issue tries to be funny and succeeds. In the lead story, Mr. Mxyzptlk turns Jimmy into an imp, and Jimmy proceeds to turn Perry White into a tiger, Lana into a midget, Clark into a chicken, etc. This story reminds me a bit of the MLP episode “Bridle Gossip,” where the Mane Six are subjected to similar effects due to poison joke. Mxy’s portrayal in this story is kind of odd; he has a giant oval-shaped head, giant eyes, and no hair, making him look like his Golden Age version. The second story in the issue is a silly piece of Orientalism. In the third story, Jimmy and Lucy Lane encounter each other under false identities (“Magi” and “Sandra”) and fall in love, and by the end of the story, neither has discovered the other’s identity. The story ends with a suggestion that Magi and Sandra might come back, and it seems that they got married in issue 82, which is now on my mental want list.

THOR #2 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. As of this issue we still don’t know who Lady Thor is, though there are apparently some clues which I failed to pick up on. This issue is a bit disappointing because it’s an overly quick read; it’s mostly just a series of fight sequences. I still think Russell Dauterman’s art is awesome, though, and I look forward to issue 3.

Reviews I forgot to post when I wrote them earlier this month

11-5-14

PROPHET: STRIKEFILE #1 (Image, 2014) – B+. This is not a continuous story (although one could argue that neither is the regular Prophet series); instead, it’s a guidebook to the Prophet universe. As such, it is really useful. After reading it feel as though I almost understand what’s going on in Prophet. As with the old Marvel Universe Handbooks and DC Who’s Who’s, this issue contains art by a large number of artists of varying talent. I wish Brandon Graham had done more than just one two-page spread.

ACTION COMICS #400 (DC, 1971) – B/B-. I’ve wanted to own this ever since I saw its cover reprinted in the “Superman from the ‘40s to the ‘70s” hardcover, when I was in high school. As an anniversary issue this is rather unimpressive – it’s just two regular stories by the regular creative team of Dorfman, Swan and Anderson. Leo Dorfman, incidentally, was one of the better ‘60s Superman writers, though he died in 1974 and is completely forgotten today. He seems to have been an old-fashioned thinker – his “The Pied Piper of Steel” from a couple issues earlier presents rock and roll music in a very negative light – but he knew how to tell an exciting story. Anyway, the first story in this issue is called “My Son… Is He Man or Beast?” but the son in question is an adopted son who is a spoiled little brat. The backup story, “The Duel of Doom” is kind of a cute love story, but is somewhat tarnished because the female lead is a stereotypical man-hating harpy who ultimately has to be saved by the male lead. What really makes this issue worthwile is the Swanderson artwork. Curt Swan, of course, is the best Superman artist ever by far, Anderson was his best inker, and I think the early ‘70s was their best period. Even though he’d been working for DC since the ‘40s, his artwork here looks surprisingly modern.

IRON MAN #2 (Marvel, 1968) – A-. This is easily the lowest-numbered issue of any long-running ‘60s Marvel title in my collection. I forget how much I paid for it but it was surprisingly cheap, though of course the condition is quite poor. This issue is a formulaic but surprisingly touching effort by Archie Goodwin and Johnny Craig. Janice Cord, daughter of Tony’s insane business rival Drexel Cord (apparently no relation to Edwin Cord, from David Michelinie’s Iron Man), emerges as an exciting character, willing to defy her father when she realizes his obsession with Tony has driven him nuts. I love Archie Goodwin’s writing – I think he may be one of the top five writers in comic book history, just in terms of actual skill – but I still don’t feel I understand Johnny Craig’s art.

UNCLE SCROOGE ADVENTURES #17 (Gladstone, 1989) – B+. “Lost Beneath the Sea” is one of the most bizarre Carl Barks stories I’ve read. It starts with Scrooge going on a trip to Asia to buy Mt. Everest, the Taj Mahal, and Hong Kong, but then his ship sinks, taking his Number One Dime along with it, and it turns out to have been recovered by some undersea Martians in giant metal suits. This story was published in 1963, three years before Barks retired, and it makes me think he must have been running out of steam. The only really funny part is the cablegram guy who keeps showing up in the most improbable places.

LOKI, AGENT OF ASGARD #6 (Marvel, 2014) – C-. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s crossover stories. (Though there’s certainly not just one thing I hate.) I had no idea what was going on in this issue or how it related to the Axis crossover, and I didn’t care. The only thing I liked was the sly retcon of John Byrne’s retcon of Claremont’s scene in which Arcade strikes a match on Doom’s armor.

INVINCIBLE #49 (Image, 2008) – A-. I haven’t gotten around to reading Invincible #114 yet because it looks like more depressing doom-and-gloom crap, and I get enough of that in real life – I’m writing this on election night. I don’t want to read a superhero comic where the bad guys win. That’s not the point of superhero comics. This issue is not so bad, though. There’s some high-quality art by Ryan Ottley, and the story sets up an exciting conflict between Mark and Cecil – a character who I never liked but who was always a source of effective dramatic tension, and I don’t think Kirkman should have just gotten rid of him. Still, my lack of enthusiasm for the current issues of the series is also lessening my interest in reading older issues of it.

AVENGERS ACADEMY #9 (Marvel, 2011) – B+. This issue focuses on Finesse, a character I don’t like (probably by design), and Tigra, a character I love. I’m going to ignore the part about Finesse and discuss the part that focuses on Tigra, which involves her attempt to deal with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted by the Hood. When the Avengers Academy students take revenge on the Hood by beating him up and posting video of the beating online, Tigra flies into a fit of rage and expels them from the Academy, over the objections of all the other teachers. Her behavior is completely understandable and yet it also seems kind of immature and childish, reinforcing her reputation as a joke character. As a more general comment, Christos Gage might be the closest current writer to Claremont or Roger Stern – he’s not the best prose stylist, but he’s a master of the Marvel style of plotting and characterization. None of his more recent stuff has seemed worth reading, though.

ADVENTURE COMICS #389 (DC, 1970) – C-. This series went sharply downhill after the Legion moved into Action Comics. I’m a fan of Supergirl, but the issues of Adventure Comics where she was the main character are just not all that good. The second story in this issue, “Supergirl’s Jilted Boyfriends,” is hideously stupid. The first story is marginally better, but also disturbing. Throughout the story, Linda Danvers and her friend Harriet are relentlessly bullied by another girl, and Linda never does anything to stop it. Reading some of these Silver Age Weisinger-edited stories, you get the impression that bullying and cruelty are inescapable facts about which nothing can be done. At least this issue does have some cute artwork by Kurt Schaffenberger and Jim Mooney.

ACTION COMICS #441 (DC, 1974) – B+. What makes this issue worthwhile is the Green Arrow/Black Canary backup story, by Maggin and Grell. In this story, Ollie and Dinah encounter a superpowered dog who turns out to be an amnesiac Krypto. The revelation of the dog’s identity was a delightful surprise to me, although I should have figured it out much earlier. I can’t remember anything about the Superman story in this issue (looking at it again, I am reminded that it guest-stars the Flash and the villain is the Weather Wizard).

MY LITTLE PONY ANNUAL 2014 (IDW, 2014) – B+. This issue is the center of a massive and stupid controversy that I don’t want to discuss in detail. There are unconfirmed reports that Ted Anderson was fired by IDW over something he included in this issue. If these reports are true, then it’s a disgrace. The people who were trying to have him fired are an embarrassment to bronies and to comics fans. It would also be a shame if he’d been fired because his stories have always been entertaining, though he’s not nearly as talented as Katie Cook. This issue does a great job of capturing what I loved about the “Power Ponies” episode. I especially love the villain who’s a giant smudge of ink, as well as the fourth-wall-breaking moments at the end. This comic is not an all-time classic or anything, but it’s a fun read and it’s certainly nothing that should cost a talented writer his job.

Now for the comics from this week:

GOTHAM ACADEMY #1 (DC, 2014) – A+. This is the best DC comic book of the past three years, if you don’t count Astro City as a DC comic. With this series and Batgirl, DC is finally making a serious effort to appeal to female readers – perhaps for the first time since they stopped publishing romance comics. And I feel like this issue is even more appealing for new readers than Batgirl #35. The writing is exciting, Karl Kerschl’s artwork is phenomenal, and I especially love Maps Mizoguchi. She just oozes energy. Every panel she appears in is a delight. I can’t wait for the next issue of this, and I think every DC comic ought to be like this.

SEX CRIMINALS #8 (Image, 2014) – A+. This is the most entertaining and upbeat issue of Sex Criminals in a while, at least until the last couple pages, where everything turns to crap. Jon has been going through some rough times but this issue offers hope that things are going to start getting better for him. I like the two new characters, the therapist and the gynecologist, and I especially love the scene where Robert Rainbow invites all the interns to look at Suzie’s cervix.

LUMBERJANES #7 (Boom!, 2014) – A/A-. This issue is a slight letdown. Too much stuff happens too quickly, and the explanation about Zeus and Apollo and Athena is difficult to accept, even with all the other weird stuff in this comic. I have trouble buying that the Greek gods would intervene in the fates of some kids at summer camp. There’s a lot of fun stuff in this issue, though. The opening scene is hilarious, though I already saw some previews of it, and I’m falling in love with Jen and I love the running joke where Rosie always gets Jen’s name wrong. And this issue ends on a heartwrenching cliffhanger. I have a feeling that Jo is going to be fine, but her sacrifice is worthy of Ferro Lad.

RAT QUEENS #8 (Image, 2014) – B/B-. It’s disappointing that this is the first new issue of Rat Queens in three months and it’s a flashback. So it’ll be another month before we get to see Betty, Hannah and Dee again. As a standalone story, this issue is actually fine – it’s funny and well-drawn and provides interesting insights into dwarf society, and I love that Wiebe and Upchurch are willing to embrace the idea that female dwarves have beards. I just want some resolution to the story that’s been left hanging since July.

MS. MARVEL #9 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. I’ve ordered the first collection of this series for my spring ENG 112 class, and I can’t wait to teach it. I just love Kamala so much, and I think this series is a radical rethinking of the superhero myth. This issue is effectively a second dose of everything I loved about the previous issue, and I don’t really have anything new to say about it, except that I love the line “Embiggened fists of rage!” My only complaint is that I like the cover art better than the interior art. It would be nice if Jamie McKelvie got to draw an issue of this series at some point.

SILVER SURFER #6 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. This is another excellent Marvel comic. The most fun part here is the Surfer and Dawn’s quest for nourishment at the start of the issue. I wonder what Skwiggian squash tastes like. Planet Prime is a hilarious idea, but Slott effectively develops its disturbing implications. This may be the series Mike Allred was born to draw; he understands the ‘60s sensibility better than perhaps any other current artist.

MANIFEST DESTINY #11 (Image, 2014) – A-. This is a satisfying conclusion to the current storyline. Hardy’s loss of his leg made me feel quite happy, and Lewis beating the crap out of the Ranidea was a cathartic moment. Not enough Sacagawea, though. I can’t wait for next issue when we get to see some other Native Americans.

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #2 (Image, 2014) – A. I let myself get four issues behind on this series because of a general lack of interest in the subject matter, but Gillen and McKelvie are one of the preeminent creative teams in the industry right now, and this series is exciting. I had trouble caring about anything that happened in Phonogram, but this series makes me feel genuinely interested in what happens to Laura and Lucifer. This is one of the better debuts of the year.

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #3 (Image, 2014) – A. See above.

THE FLASH #1 (DC, 1987) – B-. Mike Baron’s Flash is fundamentally different from any other version of the character. He wrote Wally as a selfish, egotistical jerk, a deeply unheroic character. This version of Wally is also extremely weak. In this issue it takes him three hours to run from the Midwest to Seattle because his top speed is 705 mph, and even then he has to eat constantly to keep his metabolism up. That last part is especially bizarre; I almost of want to go through this issue again and list all the things that Wally eats. Overall this does not feel like a Flash comic to me, and I’m kind of glad that this characterization of Wally was discarded, but I do give Baron credit for trying something different.

KA-ZAR THE SAVAGE #16 (Marvel, 1982) – B/B-. I like this Ka-Zar series a lot, or at least I used to. But reading this issue, I felt like Bruce Jones tried to write a serious adult relationship and failed, and ended up writing Ka-Zar and Shanna as petulant children. Sometimes his Ka-Zar acts like such a jerk to Shanna that I want to slap him (Ka-Zar, not Bruce). This issue also includes some stereotypical depictions of indigenous people, and an unmemorable plot that centers around a shapeshifting alien in the form of a rodent. The “Tales of Zabu” backup might actually be better than the main story.

CREEPY #94 (Warren, 1977) – B+. This is billed as a “Weird Children’s Issue,” which creates ambiguity as to whether it’s the issue that’s weird, or the children. Easily the best story here is “Backwaters and Timing Circles” by Budd Lewis and Alex Niño. Alex’s artwork really shines in this large format; it gives him the opportunity to create some mind-warping full-page compositions. Nothing else in this issue is at the same level, though “Bad Tommy” (Roger McKenzie & Nicola Cuti/Martín Salvador) and “Bessie” (Gerry Boudreau/Leo Duranona) are interesting pieces of psychological horror.

MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #20 (Marvel, 1976) – B/B+. I don’t understand Roy Thomas’s obsession with the Golden Age. I know it’s what he grew up on, but I feel like most Golden Age superhero comics just weren’t all that good, and Roy’s Golden Age pastiches aren’t much better. For a Golden Age pastiche, though, this comic is reasonably enjoyable.

SUPERGIRL: COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE 8TH GRADE #3 (DC, 2009) – A-. This is probably DC’s best kid-oriented comic in recent memory. It’s funny and well-drawn and not hypersexualized in any way. (Eric Jones’s Supergirl looks more goofy than cute, which is appropriate given her age.) The plot of this comic is extremely complicated and bizarre, but Landry Walker’s writing is clear enough that the reader never gets confused. Unfortunately, in a recent article by Janelle Asselin, Jann Jones, who edited this series, said that DC’s executives never supported projects like this, and that their apathy was the reason why she left the company. Which is a real shame. This comic is better than almost anything published by DC subsequently, and DC’s lack of understanding of this sort of comic is the reason why they’ve fallen so far behind the rest of the industry.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #7 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. I bought this issue solely because it guest-stars Kamala. The one-page sequence where she’s fangirling over Spider-Man is worth the price of the issue all on its own – and that’s almost literally true, because the rest of this comic is much less exciting. I like this Anna Maria character, but otherwise, the part of this comic that deals with Spider-Man is of little interest to me.

WEST COAST AVENGERS #19 (Marvel, 1987) – C+/B-. This series is one of Englehart’s lesser works, and I’m only reading it because I’m almost out of better Englehart comics to read. This issue is an installment in a time-travel story which was hopelessly confusing and implausible. The art’s not great either, and the Phantom Rider’s mental rape of Mockingbird is disturbing; it’s good to know that he eventually pays for this crime with his life. At least this issue has Hawkeye and Tigra in it.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #95 (Marvel, 1971) – A+. This was a Lee/Romita Spider-Man comic that I hadn’t already read, which is extremely rare. Jazzy Johnny is perhaps my favorite Silver Age artist who doesn’t have a huge body of work. His reputation as a superhero artist rests on about thirty issues of Spider-Man and ten issues of Captain America and not much else. It’s too bad that his responsibilities as Marvel’s art director prevented him from doing more monthly comics. In this issue, Peter goes to London to look for Gwen but doesn’t get a chance to see her, so it’s just full of delicious angst and heartbreak. And as usual, Jazzy Johnny’s artwork is fantastic; he combines the emotional subtlety of a romance cartoonist with the exciting action sequences of a superhero artist.

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #4 (Image, 2014) – A-. More good stuff. It’s nice finally seeing all the other gods – or most of them, I think there are a couple we haven’t seen yet. Not much else to say about this issue.

SUPERGIRL #39 (DC, 1999) – B+/A-. I really need to read more of this series. It’s one of PAD’s better works from the ‘80s. The story in this issue is not entirely clear, but it does include some very effective flashback scenes involving a woman who is violently rejected by her parents after coming out to them. I want to get issue 38 so I know what’s going on here.

DARK HORSE PRESENTS #28 (Dark Horse, 1989) – A-. This issue’s Concrete story is quite short and plotless, but it’s a touching and sensitively written piece in which Concrete and Maureen talk about environmental issues. As I mentioned on Facebook the other day, someone really ought to write a dissertation or monograph on comics and environmental/ecological issues, and Concrete, Swamp Thing and Tales of the Beanworld would be obvious choices of texts that such a book could discuss. It’s just too bad this story is in black and white; there are some stunning full-page compositions here that would have worked much better in color. This issue also includes a Mr. Monster story which is a funny and respectful tribute to Graham Ingels. The other material in this issue is best left unmentioned.

SHE-HULK #9 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. This is a fun issue, but my primary reaction to it is anger that such a promising title is going to have such a short run. I do wonder if the ineffective guest artwork by Ron Wimberly may have killed the momentum this series was building. The other primary emotion this issue arouses is annoyance at Captain America, whose obsession with fair play and honesty is so great as to cause him to reject perfectly good advice from his lawyer. And for some reason this is harder to tolerate when Cap looks like an old man, because of the stereotype that old men are inflexible and cantankerous. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next issue. I just wish it wasn’t also the antepenultimate issue.

SUPERMAN ADVENTURES #25 (DC, 1998) – B/B-. This issue is written by Mark Millar, whose work I usually wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. He’s less awful when he’s writing kids’ comics. Still, this issue was not quite what I expected from a Superman/Batgirl team-up. It was mostly about the difference between Superman and Batman and why Superman’s methods don’t work in Gotham. The story involves a significant dose of plot-induced stupidity. The villain is the Mad Hatter, and he’s wearing a hat that allows him to control the mind of anyone else who’s wearing one of his hats, and it takes until the end of the issue for the heroes to realize that they can defeat him by just knocking his hat off. Batgirl has some cool action sequences in this issue, but it doesn’t focus on her enough.

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #5 (Image, 2014) – A. This is a strong conclusion to the first story arc of this series. Lucifer’s death is a real shock because I liked her a lot. Looking forward to the next issue.

THE REVIVAL #20 (Image, 2014) – B+. I have fallen significantly behind on this series; I also have issues 22 through 24 and I haven’t read any of them yet. I liked this issue, though I don’t remember much about it now.

IMPULSE #2 (DC, 1995) – A+. Reading this comic was like a throwback to the beginning of my comic collecting career. I read most of this run on Impulse when I was even younger than Bart, and it was one of the first comics I ever truly loved. I cared more about Bart and Carol and even Max than about most of the actual kids I knew. Humberto Ramos’s artwork was like a breath of fresh air, so dynamic and emotionally expressive – it’s too bad he descended into irrelevance so quickly. This issue is a very simple story in which Bart stops an experimental tank from being sabotaged and tries to fit in at school, but it’s adorable for the same reason as Ms. Marvel is adorable. I miss this kind of DC comic.

YOUNG JUSTICE #42 (DC, 2002) – B+/A-. Another example of the same kind of DC comic as Impulse. However, this is one of the darker and grimmer issues of YJ because it deals with Empress’s reaction to the tragic death of her father. So it’s not a lot of fun to read, although PAD and Todd Nauck do a good job of depicting her emotional state.

BANANA SUNDAY #1 (Oni, 2005) – A-. This is a very obscure series and it seems like a minor work compared to Tobin and Coover’s more recent stuff, especially Bandette. But like everything by this creative team, it’s a lot of fun. This issue introduces high school student Kirby Steinberg, her three superintelligent ape friends (or two, really; the third one is pretty stupid), and Nickels, a school reporter who is determined to find out the truth about Kirby. These characters remind me a lot of Bandette and her supporting cast because they always seem happy no matter what they’re doing. And in general, this series has the same degree of lightness and fun that’s characteristic of all of Colleen’s work.

VAMPIRELLA #42 (Warren, 1975) – A+. This is the first complete issue of Warren’s Vampirella that I’ve ever actually read. It is a very tough series to collect, and when I do manage to find old Warren comics, I have this tendency to just let them sit unread. This issue includes one story that’s worth an A+ all by itself: “Around the Corner… Just Beyond Eternity!” by Victor Mora (uncredited) and Luis García. This is one of seven short stories later collected as “Las crónicas del sin nombre.” I’ve wanted to read this material for a long time, since I read David Roach’s glowing reviews of Mora and García’s work, and this story lived up to the hype. In terms of plot it’s a rather formulaic ghost story, but the artwork is stupendous. It’s not so much drawn as scratched or etched, and the level of detail and the contrasts between light and dark are unbelieveable. The influence of Alberto Breccia is clear, yet Garcia has a style all his own. David Roach says these pages are “amongst the most beautiful comic book pages ever drawn” (http://theartofluisgarciamozos.blogspot.com) and it’s hard to disagree. The other stories in this issue pale in comparison, and some of them are a bit embarrassing. For example, the Vampirella story includes a lesbian kiss which is clearly included just for fanservice. There is some good writing in the other stories, particularly in the Pantha story by Budd Lewis. Overall, this issue makes me realize that I need to buy more Vampirella comics and actually read them. Vampirella #43, which includes an allegedly even better Mora/Garcia story, is now at the top of my want list; sadly mycomicshop.com wants almost $30 for it.

XENOZOIC TALES #6 (Kitchen Sink, 1988) – A/A+. Two impressive stories here by the greatest living draftsman in American comics. Both these stories might be seen as homages to great comics of the past: “Foundling” is about a boy raised by aliens, reminding me of Tarzan, and “Green Air” is an aviation story that reminds me of George Evans. In both these stories Mark Schultz’s artwork is absolutely spectacular, worthy of his masters Frazetta and Raymond and Williamson. (Which reminds me, I’ve hardly read anything by Alex Raymond and I need to correct that. The problem is that his work is only available in expensive hardcovers.) I also like Schultz’s characterization. Jack Tenrec, for example, is a genuine antihero, well-intentioned but dangerous and untrustworthy.

UNCLE SCROOGE ADVENTURES #22 (Gladstone, 1993) – A+. “The Prize of Pizarro” is a much better duck story than “Lost Beneath the Sea,” reviewed above. Maybe the best thing about this story is the artwork. Since this story is taking place in the Andes, there are some beautiful mountain landscapes. There are also some panel layouts that are radical by the standards of the time, or even by today’s standards. To depict the nephews falling off a cliff face, Barks uses a panel with jagged diagonal borders, which interrupts the 2×4 grid in a shocking way. It seems like the perfect way to draw this sort of sequence, and yet hardly anyone else would have thought of it. Also, the running gag where Scrooge reads the letter one line at a time is hilarious. Once the ducks actually get to the lost Inca city, this weird thing happens where the ducks and the Incas never actually see each other. I guess this has the effect of absolving Scrooge of guilt for stealing treasure from indigenous people, since he didn’t know they were there at all. The Incas in this story are depicted in a somewhat stereotypical way, but not nearly as much so as the native people in other Barks stories. In general this is a fascinating piece of work, although I think that the person who wrote the analytical essay on the inside covers is reading things into it that aren’t there.

USAGI YOJIMBO #23 (Dark Horse, 1998) – A/A+. “My Father’s Swords” is an impressive done-in-one story. The new character Usagi meets in this issue, Donbori Chiaki, is an admirable young man who exemplifies the samurai ethic almost as well as Usagi himself does. The twist about Chiaki’s father is not exactly unexpected, but it’s executed well. The one problem with this story is that it establishes that Chiaki’s father was a significant figure in Usagi’s life, and yet we’ve never heard of him before.

HEROBEAR AND THE KID ANNUAL #1 (Boom!, 2013) – C-. As lovely as Mike Kunkel’s artwork is, I feel that this comic has passed its sell-by date. This is the sort of kids’ comic that’s only worth reading if you’re an actual kid, and a very young one at that. Mike Kunkel’s portrayal of childhood is sanitized, whitewashed (literally, there are no people of color here that I can see) and nostalgic. It’s a depiction of an idealized ‘50s small-town America that never really existed. I would much rather be reading Raina Telgemeier or Kazu Kibuishi or Mike Maihack.

CATWOMAN #5 (DC, 2002) – B-/C+. This is just an average crime comic. The artwork is by Brad Rader, who is far worse than Darwyn Cooke or Cameron Stewart – though I do like his use of an 8-panel grid, and there’s one lovely panel in which a criminal is framed inside Catwoman’s hand. The centerpiece of the story is Brendan Skinner, who is introduced to us as a promising 12-year-old boy, and then gets put into a permanent vegetative state due to drugs. This part is very touching, but other than that, Brubaker’s story is very formulaic.

SPECIAL FORCES #3 (Image, 2008) – B-. This is a very, very strange comic and I really don’t think it’s one of Kyle Baker’s better works. I read the first two issues of this a long time ago, and I don’t remember much about them except that they’re about the war in Iraq. Kyle is clearly trying to make a political statement here, but it’s hard to tell what it is. What significantly decreases the quality of this issue for me is the artwork. This is not the first series where Kyle has experimented with multiple artistic media – he did this quite effectively in Plastic Man – but here he goes too far. This issue is full of photographic and digital imagery that clashes with the style of Kyle’s artwork. I am not in a hurry to read issue 4.

WONDER WOMAN #38 (DC, 1990) – B+. This is a fun and thought-provoking issue, but it’s hampered by Mindy Newell’s dialogue writing. She’s an okay writer but her dialogue has some weird quirks. Also, Chris Marrinan’s artwork is a big step down from that of Gentleman George or Jill Thompson. This story is mostly about a visit by a human delegation to Paradise Island, and it includes a lot of interesting vignettes, including one where it’s basically confirmed that Themyscira is a lesbian society. There’s also a plot involving Ares, but whatever.

FEARLESS DEFENDERS #1 (Marvel, 2013) – B+/A-. Like She-Hulk, this is another quality Marvel NOW! series that failed to find an audience and got canceled. Which is a shame because I love the idea of an all-female Defenders team. This issue is full of exuberant fun and excitement, though it does also include a lot of T&A and some gratuitous girl-on-girl action. Misty Knight and Val are frequently shown in improbable back-breaking poses. I feel, though, that unlike in most superhero comics that use this sort of anatomy, Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney are aware of what they’re doing here. There is a certain tone of deliberate campiness to this comic, reminding me of blaxploitation films (or at least my ideas of what blaxploitation films must be like).

THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #11 (Marvel, 2013) – B-. I guess this is what Christos Gage is doing now that Avengers Academy is gone. I love the idea of Doc Ock as Spider-Man, but Doc Ock’s internal monologue was just about the only thing I liked about this comic; other than that it was mostly a generic superhero story.

HAWKEYE #17 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. I’m sorry I missed reading “Winter Friends” when it came out, because it’s a hilarious and surprisingly powerful story. It initially seemed like complete nonsense, but as I continued to read, its parallels to Hawkeye’s life became clear. Writing that sentence, it occurred to me that this story is Matt Fraction’s version of “Kitty’s Fairy Tale.” I normally hate Chris Eliopoulous’s art – his style is a blatant ripoff of that of Bill Watterson – but for this particular story he was a perfect choice.

THE DEFENDERS #9 (Marvel, 2001) – B+/A-. This issue of Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen’s short-lived Defenders revival is extremely fun – at least until the end, when Orrgo the Unconquerable conquers the entire world in an implausibly quick and easy way. Perhaps the highlight of this issue is a one-page scene where we meet a new character named Irwin, who seems to have no relevance to anything else in the issue, and then he answers the door and an unseen person shoots him. This made no sense to me initially until I realized, wait, that’s the Elf with a Gun, and I laughed my ass off. (It turns out that in a later issue, it was revealed that Irwin was in fact shot by an AIM agent, but clearly the reader is supposed to think it’s the Elf with a Gun.) This issue also includes some enjoyable scenes involving Hellcat, Nighthawk and Valkyrie.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #4 (Marvel, 2003) – B-. This was a fairly well-written comic but it left me clueless as to what was going on. Genis-Vell is depicted in this issue as a sleazy, deceptive, immoral jerk, and then at the end he kills himself. I have no idea how this fits in with any other version of the character.

DAREDEVIL #5 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. Most of that grade is because of Chris Samnee’s artwork. He continues to be one of the top artists in commercial comics. However, I think I may have reached a point of diminishing returns with Mark Waid’s writing. His stylistic quirks are starting to grate on me, and I’m having trouble distinguishing his Daredevil from any of his other heroes. Also, I have a real problem with the idea that Ant-Man is helping cure Foggy’s cancer. Why does Foggy deserve this special treatment any more than anyone else who has cancer and doesn’t happen to have superpowered friends? Garth Ennis directly confronts this exact question in Hellblazer #46, but Mark completely ignores it.

THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #100 (DC, 1972) – A-. “Warrior in a Wheel-Chair” is a genuine epic, as tense and gripping as any of Haney and Aparo’s B&B stories. This story presents Batman in a rather nontraditional role. Bruce is paralyzed by a gunshot wound just before a massive drug shipment is about to arrive in town, he has to call in Hal, Ollie, Dinah and Dick for help, and he directs their anti-drug operation from a wheelchair. It’s fascinating seeing Batman as a general instead of a foot soldier. The weak link in this story is that Batman’s strategic planning ends up accomplishing nothing; every time one of the guest-stars tracks down the drug shipment, it turns out to be fake, and Batman eventually has to defeat the plot almost on his own. Also, this story includes a scene where Black Canary attends a feminist rally, and the feminists are depicted in a highly stereotypical and unflattering way. This scene could have been modified to get rid of the sexism without doing any damage to the plot. Other than that, though, this issue is a ton of fun.

CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA #1 (Archie, 2014) – A-. I don’t know if we really need another Archie horror title – I feel like we may be reaching a point where this joke is no longer funny. But this is a well-written and beautifully drawn story – Robert Hack is an extremely talented new artist. And I like how Archie is reviving the memory of the Red Circle line, which really was pretty cool.

MANIFEST DESTINY #3 (Image, 2014) – B+. This issue would have been better if I’d read it when it came out, but at this point it mostly just feels like setup for more interesting stories to come. Sacagawea’s initial cameo appearance on the last page is awesome, but other than that, there’s not much new information in this issue that I didn’t already know.

STUMPTOWN #1 (Oni, 2014) – B/B+. This issue is a lesson in how not to market a comic to new readers. There is no indication anywhere in this issue that it’s not the first Stumptown story, except that the indicia says it’s volume 3. A reader might easily pick up this comic book and have no idea that these characters had appeared before. Moreover, this issue makes no attempt to explain anything to the reader. Greg Rucka does not tell the reader who these characters are or why we should be interested in them. I don’t even know what’s up with the protagonist’s brother – I guess he has Down syndrome or something, but it would have been nice if Greg hadn’t assumed the reader already knew this. Despite all that, I did enjoy this comic; I’m especially fascinated by the depiction of the Portland Timbers game, and after reading this issue, I kind of want to go and see an MLS game for myself. And I will be picking up future issues of this comic. I just would have enjoyed it more if it had been more new-reader-friendly.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #10 (IDW, 2014) – B+. I started reading election news while I was in the middle of reading this comic, which greatly decreased my enjoyment of it. Because of that, this comic may always have negative associations for me, which is a shame because it’s actually quite good. Fluttershy and Iron Will are a hilarious combination. I especially love Iron Will’s reactions to the customers at Pinkie Pie’s shop. Reading this issue, though, I do wonder how Fluttershy makes a living if she spends all her time feeding animals for free.

SAMLA paper

Posting this here so I can read it off my phone while running my presentation off my own computer.

First, in case anyone doesn’t know this, the wifi code for this room is…
This paper is going to be a survey of ways that I’ve used interactive fiction, including tools like Inform 7 and Inklewriter, for pedagogical purposes. I don’t know how much background the audience will have in tools of this sort, so I will try to describe them fairly frequently. And by interactive narrative I mean texts that can go in multiple directions. A simple example of this is Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are Lisa’s area of expertise, or interactive fiction games like Zork. Now first, I believe that having students make interactive narratives can be pedagogically useful because on the one hand, such texts are fairly easy to produce, and I’ll give some examples of how in a minute. But on the other hand, they offer a concise and effective introduction to digital rhetoric. I don’t want to go into the theory too deeply here, but one thing that distinguishes games from other types of texts is that in games, the reader or player is forced to make choices, to take concrete actions, and to accept responsibility for the outcome of those actions. And interactive fiction is a very simple way of creating a narrative that implements this sort of rhetoric, that forces the reader to make concrete choices. But because of its very simplicity, it is also easily accessible for students at any level of coding proficiency.
So this paper itself is going to be a simple example of interactive fiction, because you’re going to decide how it plays out. Imagine you’re in a yellow wood and there are two paths diverging in front of you and both of them are equally worn and covered with leaves. And in front of you is this sign, SLIDE which indicates basically that the path to the left is the path of teaching failure, while the path to the right is the path of teaching success. And you have to choose which path to take. So which one will you choose?
TEACHING FAIL: So taking the left-hand path, you come to a dark, gloomy forest, and as you walk through the forest, looking around uneasily every time you hear a wolf howl or an owl hoot, you hear a voice telling you a story about pedagogical failure. And the story goes like this. The first time I tried to have my students make interactive narratives, as opposed to just reading them, was in my second semester as a Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech. I asked my students to write one of their papers as an interactive fiction game using Inform 7. Now by interactive fiction I mean a particular genre of video games or electronic literature which is perhaps better known as the text adventure game. SLIDE In a text adventure game, like Zork or Adventure, the gameworld and the objects in it are depicted with text instead of pictures, and the player enters input in the form of text. Like, Zork famously begins by saying “You are in an open field west of a white house with a boarded front door, there is a mailbox here,” and you can type commands like go west or open mailbox or open door. Now text adventures were a major commercial genre in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the text adventures published by Infocom are among the all-time classic video games. But text adventures were quickly superseded by video games that used graphics, and by the early ‘90s they had become unmarketable. So a fan named Graham Nelson reverse-engineered the code that Infocom used to write their games, and based on this he wrote a programming language called Inform, to allow himself and other hobbyists to write similar games which were distributed for free. Inform 7 is the latest version of that programming language, and it’s different from earlier versions because it uses a natural-langauge programming model; in other words, its text looks like actual code. Here’s an example of a game written in Inform 7 SLIDE and here’s the source code SLIDE. Now I thought this was going to work because ideally it wouldn’t require a lot of coding, especially since I was working with students who already had a high degree of coding proficiency. I discovered that there was a computational media MA student in my department named,Chris Sumsky who was an expert in this language, so I asked him to come visit my classes and do a demonstration of how Inform 7 worked, and he was kind enough to agree. So I thought this was sufficient preparation, but I was wrong. First of all, the simplicity of Inform 7 is deceptive because it makes some simple things difficult to do. And I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know this because I didn’t have experience with Inform 7 myself – I had tried some small experiments with it but never a large-scale project. This assignment was kind of my introduction to the principle that I shouldn’t do something myself that I’m not willing to make my students do. And also, just as an example of the hidden complexity of this language, here is the source code to a major recent game written in this language, Counterfeit Monkey. Etc The further problem was that for some of my students it was too simple. A lot of my students were used to much more complex programming languages that did not use a natural-language model, and for them it was actually tough to write code that looked like human-readable language. Some of them even chose to write their projects in Inform 6, which is the previous version of Inform and does not use natural-language programming; here is an example of what Inform 6 code looks like. For students who are already proficient at coding, this is actually more natural, and this is something I couldn’t have known in advance. But the final problem was that this was just one of about five different projects I assigned over the course of the semester, and the amount of effort required to learn Inform 7 was disproportionate to the importance of the assignment. As a result, the projects I got were not all that exciting. Most of the papers were just very small narratives where you played through them just by walking through a few rooms. I did get one game that was extremely good – it might even have been worth submitting to the annual interactive fiction competition – but other than that the results were not what I expected.
So based on this experience, I would be hesitant to use Inform 7 again unless I had the time to, first, create a significant original work using this language, so that I would have a better understanding of the effort involved in using it and the ways of using it effectively and ineffectively. But if I did use it again, I would make it a much larger component of the semester, which is what my former colleague and friend Jon Kotchian did, and I’m sorry he’s not here – he made Inform 7 the final project in the semester, so the effort involved in learning it would be proportional to the value of the grade students would earn for mastering it. IF THIS IS THE FIRST PATH: But later in my Georgia Tech career, I discovered another platform for teaching interactive fiction which was much more effective. And you would have heard about that if you’d chosen to take the other path.
WHEN FIRST PATH IS COMPLETED: Okay, so the voice stops talking and you realize that the path went in a circle and you’re back in the original point where the two roads diverged, and you’re in front of the sign again. So it looks like you’re going to have to take the other path in order to get out of the woods.
TEACHING WIN: So taking the right-hand path, you come to a bright, sunny garden full of flowers and cute animals and birds. As you romp through the freshly cut grass, you hear another voice telling a story about pedagogical success, and this is what it says. Later in my time at Georgia Tech, I learned of another platform for creating interactive narratives. This is Inklewriter, which was created by Jon Ingold, an author of interactive fiction. Inklewriter is a platform for, essentially, writing Choose Your Own Adventure stories, only these stories are implemented digitally. So it works by creating stories that have multiple branches, and you can also specify that certain branches are only available if certain other branches have already been seen.
So when I learned about Inklewriter, it seemed like a platform with a low learning curve which I could feasibly use in an 1102 class. So in my fifth semester at Georgia Tech, I taught an ENGL 1102 class focused on games. The second major project in this class was an adaptation project – I told the students to choose some text that was originally not a game, such as a film or novel, and adapt it into a game, which I defined for the purposes of the assignment as an “interactive narrative which requires non-trivial effort from the player in order to complete it.” And I suggested Inklewriter as one possible medium they could use to do that. Now to prove both to them and myself that this was actually feasible, I actually used Inklewriter to create the assignment sheet for this project. So it looked like this CLICK and it took advantage of a couple of the specific affordances of Inklewriter, including the ability to use if-then conditional statements and to include pictures. I did this not just because it was funny, although it was, but also because I wanted to demonstrate to myself and to my students that it actually was possible to create at least a rudimentary Inklewriter narrative even if you had no previous experience with the medium. And by doing this, I think I avoided repeating my mistake with Inform 7, where I asked the students to do something I couldn’t do myself.
Now for this first project, not all the students used Inklewriter – some of them chose to create their games in other ways – and the projects were of varying quality, but overall I felt that the students got into this assignment in a way that did not happen with the Inform 7 assignment. The adaptations were fun to play, allowing for the fact that I had to play through 75 of them, and the students chose an interesting range of texts to adapt. The most common flaw I encountered, I think, was that the students failed to provide enough background information about the texts they were adapting, and another common annoyance was that many of the games had to be replayed multiple times in order to see all the text, because Inklewriter does not include a save and restore function. But this project led to some fascinating responses. The one I remember best was “The Intruder,” where the player character is walking in the forest and encounters an empty house where there are three of everything and for some reason the refrigerator is full of raw meat, and gradually you realize this is an adaptation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. CLICK It was effective both as an adaptation of the fairy tale and also as a game, because in order to win, the player had to recognize what it was an adaptation of and to act accordingly. Now of course not all the papers were at this level, but I think Inklewriter made it possible for the students to do what I was trying to get them to do, which was to create an interactive version of a noninteractive text and to think critically about the creative decisions and compromises that this task involved.
So the final project in this class was a group project and it asked the students to design a game that made an argument, and I told them that the game should convey its argument not just through verbal and visual rhetoric but also by what Ian Bogost calls procedural rhetoric. By procedural rhetoric, Bogost means the way in which games can communicate arguments not just through their content but also through the processes and rules that they employ. The very fact that a game is set up in a certain way, that it employs certain procedures and rules and not others, can be a tool for conveying an argument. And I wanted the students to demonstrate an understanding of how this sort of rhetoric worked. So I again allowed them to design their game with any sort of tools that they wanted, and some of them again used Inklewriter while others who had greater coding proficiency chose to use more complex tools. Now for this project, one of the most exciting games I received was “The RPG about why RPGs matter.” I have some quibbles about the title because this isn’t really an RPG, but the basic argument of the game was that gaming allows us to share the experiences of people very different from us. And the students created a game which included three vignettes that were supposed to demonstrate this – or two really because one of the students unfortunately failed to deliver his or her part of the project, but oh well. In the two parts of the game that were actually completed, the common theme was that they both asked the player to share experiences which were probably completely unfamiliar to him or her. One of the parts was about poaching in Africa and it depicted the same incident from two perspectives – that of a poacher and that of a game warden. The other part was told from the perspective of an immigrant who had just arrived in America and was trying to get to the home of his or her spouse who had immigrated previously. And the brilliant touch here was that all the English-language dialogue in the game was written in anagrams. For example, this part of the game begins “Please tnsfea yrou bsaeltets and utp oyru tray ni the ithgupr iinptsoo. We rea aigvrnri ta the rtioapr,” CLICK said a deep voice over the intercom on the plane.” In order to obtain a satisfactory outcome the player has to decipher this text and figure out the instructions for getting off the plane and taking public transit to the spouse’s home and so on – and it’s possible because all the text is in understandable English, but the player has to unscramble it. And I felt that this was a brilliant way of conveying the frightening and confusing nature of a language barrier, and the way in which tasks which are simple to us might be frightening and scary to someone not familiar with our culture. It’s an effective way of forcing the player to occupy an unfamiliar subject position – at least a subject position which is unfamiliar to me – and it powerfully demonstrates the students’ point that gaming can be a tool for creating empathy. So this is an example of the benefits of using IF in the English classroom.
AFTER BOTH PATHS COMPLETED: Finally you emerge out of the tangled paths. Having experienced stories of both pedagogical success and pedagogical failure with interactive fiction, you feel you are now on the way to being able to use it effectively in your own classes. **You have won**