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.

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