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.