KANE #11 (Dancing Elephant, 1997) – B. This issue focuses on a notorious and unsavory criminal named Rico Costas. The story here is only average and is difficult to understand for a new reader of the series. What makes this comic interesting is Paul Grist’s highly effective artwork, which is sort of like a British version of ligne claire. He’s also an excellent letterer.
SAGA #25 (Image, 2015) – A+. When I taught Saga at the beginning of this semester, my students noticed that it relies heavily on gross-out moments and shocking twists (whereas the next comic we read, Ms. Marvel, is more low-key). And the dragon piss scene in this issue is a notable example of both. It’s one of the most gloriously disgusting scenes in the entire series. The other notable moment this issue was Hazel saying that she’s not going to see her father again for years – because come on, Brian, why do you have to twist our heartstrings like that. I hope this means that one of them is giong to go temporarily blind, because I don’t want to believe they’re really not going to see each other. But overall, this was another good issue of the best comic book of the 2010s.
UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL #2 (Marvel, 2015) – A+. Issue 1 of this series was such an epic of epic epicness (not my phrase) that issue 2 was inevitably going to be a letdown, but it was still an extremely brilliant piece of work. I just submitted an abstract for a paper about Squirrel Girl for Wiscon, and I want to save my observations on this issue for that paper, so suffice it to say that this is an incredible comic and an important part of Marvel’s outreach to female readers. Pretty much every single panel of this issue is brilliant, but maybe the one thing that sticks out the most in my mind is the two tables labeled Social Justice Club and Social Injustice Club, with their occupants glaring at each other.
HELP US! GREAT WARRIOR #1 (Boom!, 2015) – A+. This is the third comic I’m reading that carries the Boom! Box logo, after Lumberjanes and Teen Dog, and all three are among the best titles on the market. Help Us! Great Warrior is a hilarious and effectively-drawn satire of the fantasy genre, and it reminds me of Squirrel Girl in that it has a protagonist who’s absolutely awesome despite looking kind of stupid. I especially like how there’s no attempt to explain just what Great Warrior is or how she got to be that way; she’s just a little green blob with arms and legs, and that’s okay. Madeleine Flores’s sense of humor is unique in that it relies heavily on complete non sequiturs.
MS. MARVEL #11 (Marvel, 2015) – A-. This is a fairly satisfying conclusion to Generation Why, but it’s a little too predictable and workmanlike. And there’s too much Ms. Marvel in this issue and not enough Kamala. I do like this issue’s emphasis on teamwork and on not trying to be completely self-sufficient. I think the next couple issues will be more exciting than this one was.
ASTRO CITY #20 (DC, 2015) – A+. Kurt recently said somewhere that when he started Astro City, there was no other comic book like it, and since then the rest of the industry has caught up to him, so he’s had to find new ways of surprising people. This issue is an example of a story that could never be told in the Marvel or DC universes because it’s about superheroes getting old, which superheroes in a shared universe can never do. In particular, this issue features a premise I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: it’s about a superhero who is facing retirement and is reflecting on the choices she’s made. As I read this issue, I kept remembering Yeats’s lines from “The Choice”:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
Quarrel clearly chose the second rather than the first, and her obsessive commitment to training and self-improvement meant that she couldn’t have a family or a healthy relationship with a man who wasn’t a complete asshole. The scene where she breaks up with MPH because she doesn’t feel worthy of him is kind of heartbreaking. And Quarrel was fine with that choice at the time she made it, but looking back on her life from near the end of her career, she wonders if it was correct. I found this powerfully moving because I’ve made the same decision – I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for the sake of my career, and right now I’m okay with that, but who knows if I’ll feel the same way in 20 or 30 years.
CAPTAIN MARVEL #12 (Marvel, 2015) – B/B+. This issue is closer to the first six issues of this series than to the five issues after that, and that’s not a good thing. There’s too much action here and not enough humor or characterization. I don’t much care about the Haffensye or whatever the plot of this issue is supposed to be. Easily the best moment in the issue is the two-page spread with the giant alien ship, but it was hard to get an effective sense of the ship’s scale. I think Dave Cockrum did a better version of this scene in X-Men #156.
MIND MGMT #30 (Dark Horse, 2015) – A. Having read this issue, I am finally caught up on this series, which makes me feel kind of proud. This issue reveals the backstory of the series’s primary villain, Julianne Verve, a.k.a. the Eraser, and it surprisingly suggests that she’s as much of a victim as anyone. The real villains are the faceless bureaucrats and politicians who keep funding MIND MGMT and allowing it to ruin people’s lives. This issue is also unique in that there’s no Field Guide; the coloring on each page extends all the way to the edges. The editor makes some interesting comments about this on the letters page.
PRINCELESS: PIRATE PRINCESS #1 (Action Lab, 2015) – A-. I love the idea behind this comic, but I’ve criticized it in the past for amateurism and low production values. This issue is somewhat better in those departments, though there is at least one storytelling error: Adrienne asks the prince if she can save the princess, and he says “by all means, sir knight, please do,” and then two pages later, Adrienne and the prince are inexplicably fighting. Other than that, this is a cute story with three distinctive and enjoyable protagonists, and I imagine it would be a great comic to give to a 7-year-old girl (see http://geekdad.com/2015/02/12-comics-7-year-old-girl/).
UNCANNY X-MEN #244 (Marvel, 1989) – C-. I don’t know if this is the worst issue of Claremont’s original run, but it’s pretty close. “Men!” is a silly and unsubtle parody of DC’s Invasion event, full of unfunny jokes and overly obvious parody characters. but the worst thing about it is the guest artwork, which is by none other than Rob Liefeld. It’s become somewhat trite to criticize Rob’s art; his complete artistic ineptitude is so well known that to criticize him is to flog a dead horse. As a result, we sometimes forget that he really is a horrible artist. This issue is full of bad anatomy, missing backgrounds, and general bad draftsmanship. Beyond that, it’s not clear what this issue is making fun of. It obviously can’t be a parody of the general concept of intercompany crossovers, because at this point, Claremont had just finished writing such a crossover himself.
AVENGERS: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE #2 (Marvel, 2010) – B+. This issue focuses heavily on Magneto and his relationship with Tommy and Billy. In a recent article (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/08/comic-books-have-never-had-that-inclusive-of-a-canvas.html), Noah Berlatsky pointed out that the standard comparison between Magneto and Malcolm X is offensive, given that Magneto is a mass murderer. Whereas Claremont typically acknowledged the fact that Magneto is a killer and a seriously scary and imposing figure, many other writers have ignored this aspect of the character and have tried to write him as a good person who’s just misguided, and that seems to be what happens in this issue. Heinberg writes Magneto as if he were a nice old grandfatherly dude who’s hated by the Avengers and X-Men for no good reason. Besides that, this issue is pretty good. Heinberg is very good at characterization, although his characterization tends to be expressed in isolated lines of dialogue rather than entire scenes. And Jim Cheung is an excellent superhero artist.
ANT-MAN #2 (Marvel, 2015) – B+. This is not one of the best Marvel titles at the moment, but it’s enjoyable enough to make me want to continue reading this title. The thing that sticks in my mind most about this comic is the Grizzly’s line “I love being muscle!” However, while I’m thrilled that Cassie’s alive again, it’s odd that this comic doesn’t acknowledge that Cassie is a superhero with a secret identity. It would be kind of fun if Scott and Cassie were a father-and-daughter superhero team.
FEATHERS #2 (Boom!, 2015) – A-. The minus is because this issue doesn’t significantly advance the plot; it’s just a whole issue of Bianca and Feathers getting to know each other. Besides that, I’m still enjoying this series a lot. Both of the protagonists are adorable and captivating characters, and I like Jorge Corona’s semi-Mignola-esque art. The name Bianca Chappelle means White Chapel, which I guess is an allusion to the area of London that this comic’s setting seems to be based on.
THOR #4 (Marvel, 2015) – A-. I was not satisfied with the last issue of this series, but I may have been in a bad mood when I read it. I enjoyed this issue significantly more. Russell Dauterman is an amazing artist, and my only problem with him is that his panels are sometimes so detailed that I can’t parse them. Previous issues have portrayed the original Thor as a raging asshole, but this issue somewhat restores my sympathy for him. I love the line about whether superheroes hug each other.
THOR #5 (Marvel, 2015) – A+. This issue gets an A+ for one reason: the scene where the Absorbing Man complains that feminists are ruining everything by making him address a woman as Thor. I applaud Jason Aaron for treating this stupid argument with the contempt that it deserves. Incidentally, this seems a good place to point out that Jason Aaron is a great advocate of gender equality in superhero comics, and that terrible, slanderous Breitbart article about female Thor is proof that what he’s doing is working, because it’s making the right people angry. Besides that, this was another enjoyable issue, but it suffered significantly from the (I hope) guest artwork by Jorge Molina. The problem here is not the artwork itself so much as the coloring, which is so relentlessly dark that it’s hard to tell what’s even going on.
LADY KILLER #2 (Dark Horse, 2015) – A-. It’s possible that my opinion of this series has been unfairly influenced by Jamie S. Rich’s self-promotion on Facebook. However, I really am enjoying this comic. Joelle Jones’s artwork brilliantly captures the visual sensibility of the ‘50s; this comic reminds me of L.A. Noire in its historical accuracy. And of course I love the premise: this series is about a woman trying to have a professional career in an age of ubiquitous sexism, which is a fairly common setup, but her profession happens to be that of assassin.
MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #24 (IDW, 2014) – B-. This is okay but not great. In this story, Discord takes Fluttershy and the Cutie Mark Crusaders on a trip through time, and the story contains so many Doctor Who references that it’s kind of annoying. The comic actually acknowledges this: when Discord opens the door of his time machine (which is smaller on the inside), Dr. Hooves walks out, and Discord says “There are too many references in this bit already. There’s no room for you!” As another small nitpick, the giant dragon-sized butterfly could have been better drawn.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR: UNSUNG HERO #1 (Dark Horse, 2002) – A-. This is a departure from the standard American Splendor formula because it’s not about Harvey; it’s a story told by Harvey’s coworker about his experiences in the Vietnam War. This is not a genre of story I particularly enjoy – I’ve had Guibert’s Alan’s War for years and still haven’t read it – but it’s interesting. This story reveals some fascinating things about the experience of black soldiers in Vietnam. However, there is way too much text in this comic. Most panels include at least three lines worth of captions, with some containing significantly more, and David Collier’s lettering, while fairly attractive, is hard to read. I suppose excessive text is a common problem in Harvey’s comics, but it’s particularly annoying here.
SUICIDE SQUAD #27 (DC, 1989) – B+. This issue is confusing because it’s part of a crossover with Checkmate, a comic I have no interest in. It has a convoluted plot involving a conflict between the Squad and several other rogue government organizations. The strength of this issue, as usual, is the characterization; the guest stars here are Punch and Jewelee, who are written as overgrown children, and Dr. Light, who is written as an ineffective, cowardly wimp. However, Dr. Light is also involved in a truly disturbing scene in which he kills an opponent who is a child, and then brags about it. Looking this up, I find that he reacts this way because he has a phobia about being beaten by kid superheroes, but this wasn’t clear to me from reading the issue, and I ended up feeling that the story failed to condemn Dr. Light’s actions as strongly as it should have.
LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #16 (DC, 1991) – B-. This issue is mostly focused on the Khund war, and includes a rather harrowing scene where the Khunds invade the UP military academy, which is staffed by Chuck and Luornu. The odd thing about this issue is that it gives the impression that the UP is in a state of perpetual war, which was not evident from earlier issues. This is an example of how this series’ plot sometimes moves too fast and how it sometimes tries to cover more narrative territory than it has the time or space for.
VISION AND THE SCARLET WITCH #11 (Marvel, 1986) – B+/A-. This is the last issue of this miniseries that I hadn’t read. It’s a cute and heartwarming story and it was one of Steve Englehart’s last major works. Each issue of this miniseries covers one month, and this one takes place in April and is appropriately titled “A Taxing Time,” and contains numerous references to tax season. This issue guest-stars Spider-Man and the Toad, and Englehart takes the opportunity to explain why (or at least acknowledge that) the Toad’s portrayal in this series is wildly inconsistent with his portrayal in Spider-Man #266. Reading between the lines, you get the impression that Steve must have been pretty angry at Peter David over that issue. Anyway, the issue ends rather disturbingly when the Toad, who had developed an insane obsession with Wanda, sees her in her eight-months-pregnant state and is completely disgusted. To his credit, Steve writes this scene in such a way as to make us sympathize with Wanda and despise the Toad’s pregnancy-phobia; his disgust at her pregnant appearance demonstrates that he never really cared about her at all, only about his romanticized image of her. And then Wanda goes on to singlehandedly kick his ass, which is pretty cool.
DAREDEVIL #36 (Marvel, 1967) – A-. The story here is not great – it features the Trapster, perhaps Marvel’s silliest villain, and it ends with a surprise Dr. Doom guest appearance which is not set up in any way. But this comic deserves an A- for the artwork. It’s been a while since I last read a Gene Colan comic and I forgot what a master he truly was. Besides his phenomenal draftsmanship, his dynamic page layouts and his ability to draw sequences are almost unparalleled.
INCREDIBLE HULK #206 (Marvel, 1976) – B+. This is the issue after the death of Jarella, which was a terrible waste of a character with incredible potential. Jarella is barely even mentioned in this issue; her death just serves to motivate the plot, in which the Hulk rampages across Manhattan searching for Dr. Strange, who he thinks has the ability to bring Jarella back. The most memorable thing about this issue is a brief scene where a bum gives the Hulk a drink from his flask, and the Hulk spits it out, thinking he’s been poisoned.
SHAOLIN COWBOY #3 (Dark Horse, 2013) – F. I rarely give the grade of F, but this comic deserves it. Comics are a medium for telling stories. This comic does not tell a story; it’s just a series of nearly identical pictures of Shaolin Cowboy killing zombies. I honestly don’t understand why Geof Darrow even tries to do comics instead of fine art, because his style is not suited to comics. His artwork is so hyperdetailed that it can’t really be read, it can only be looked at.
WONDER WOMAN #215 (DC, 1975) – D+/C-. This story brought my frustration with Cary Bates’s writing to a boiling point. It made me realize that Cary was just not that good of a writer, except on the Flash. He was terrible at characterization and I get the impression that he was ashamed of having to write comic books for a living. This issue involves a war between Themyscira and Atlantis, which should be an effective premise, but Cary’s boring writing sucks all the life out of it.
MYSTIC FUNNIES #2 (Fantagraphics 2007, originally Last Gasp 1997) – B+. I’m only giving this a B+ because while the artwork is gorgeous, the story is just standard Crumb material and does not offer anything I haven’t seen before. It’s about a moronic nebbishy dude who’s obsessed with a full-figured long-legged women, which seems like a summary of about half of Crumb’s body of work.
DETECTIVE COMICS #436 (DC, 1973) – B-. The Batman story in this issue is a fairly pedestrian whodunit, with equally boring art by Bob Brown. The writing in this story is not up to Frank Robbins’s typical standards. The Elongated Man backup story is significantly better. Elliot S! Maggin and Dick Giordano do some cool stuff with Ralph Dibny’s powers. But maybe my favorite thing about this story is that it begins with Sue getting kidnapped by criminals, and yet she’s not worried at all, because she has total confidence that Ralph will save her within the hour.
SENSATION COMICS FEATURING WONDER WOMAN #6 (DC, 2015) – C+. The first story in this issue is a serious misfire because of the artwork. In the first place, Drew Johnson’s art just isn’t very good, but more importantly, this story is full of gratuitous T&A and Escher Girls poses. This shows a complete lack of sensitivity to the target audience. I thought this series was supposed to be a Wonder Woman comic that young girls could enjoy, and this artwork is not appropriate for that audience. The only redeeming feature of the art is that Johnson draws a very cute version of Diana as a child. The backup story, which is a teamup with Big Barda, is a lot better, but I wish it had been longer because I’d have liked to see more interaction between Diana and Barda.
INVINCIBLE #116 (Image, 2015) – B+. Let me quote my own Facebook post: “Robert Kirkman is no longer even close to being the best writer in comics. The reason he’s still relevant is because of his skill at writing about moral ambiguity. Invincible #116 is a good example of that and it almost justifies the Rex storyline, which killed my enthusiasm for the series.” The moral ambiguity here is that Rex has succeeded in conquering Earth, and he’s turned the planet into a utopia, but Mark knows he can’t live with himself if he leaves Rex in charge – so instead he decides to leave Earth entirely. Kirkman does a very effective job of making the reader understand why Mark makes this decision. The part of this issue that doesn’t ring true is Mark and Eve’s dinner with Eve’s parents. Eve’s father is such a boorish asshole that I have trouble believing in him.
DETECTIVE COMICS #480 (DC, 1978) – B+. This issue showcases two brilliant and underrated artists: Don Newton and Murphy Anderson. Neither story in this issue is particularly memorable, although the first issue is a somewhat touching portrayal of a misunderstood misfit who gets turned into a living weapon against Batman. But the artwork in both stories is gorgeous.
THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #76 (DC, 1968) – B-/C+. The best thing about this issue is the Neal Adams cover. The first story guest-stars Plastic Man, who, as usual, is wildly mishandled. He’s written as a comic relief character, which is precisely wrong; as written by Jack Cole, Plastic Man was a serious stiff-upper-lipped straight man, and it was the world around him that was bizarre and hilarious. The most interesting thing about this story is that it includes a villain, the Molder, who can manipulate plastic, and it’s an interesting example of popular views of plastic in the late ‘60s. As depicted in this story, plastic is an omnipotent super-material that can do anything at all, but there’s also something eerie about it. This issue also includes a backup story which is just execrably stupid. And it introduces a new villain, Mr. 50-50, who is so similar to Two-Face that I wonder why they didn’t just use Two-Face instead.
DAREDEVIL #20 (Marvel, 1966) – A+. This deserves an A+ just because it’s Gene Colan’s first issue. The credits box says that he “offered to pinch-hit” for John Romita this issue, but Romita never returned to the title, and Gene ended up drawing all but three of the next 80 issues. This issue is beautifully drawn and it proves that Gene Colan and Matt Murdock were made for each other. The plot is a bit anticlimactic, though. The Owl kidnaps Matt Murdock and forces to participate in a rigged trial, in which Matt has to “defend” the judge who sentenced the Owl to prison. I expected this to be a Marvel version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” – in other words, I expected that Matt would defend his client so effectively as to persuade the jury of criminals to let him off. But that doesn’t happen; instead, Matt takes the first opportunity to leave the room and change into Daredevil, then returns and beats everyone up. What a pity.
CASANOVA: ACEDIA #1 (Image, 2015) – A-. An effective continuation of this excellent series. I don’t remember much about the previous volume of Casanova, but this issue is perfectly readable anyway, since it begins with Casanova suffering from amnesia, so the reader doesn’t need to know any more than he does. Matt’s writing is fairly effective, but the real highlight of this issue is Fábio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s artwork. I think they’re both among the top artists in the industry. Each of them is a gifted storyteller with a unique style of draftsmanship. I think I’m actually more excited for the next issue because of the artwork than because of the story.
GROO: FRIENDS AND FOES #1 (Dark Horse, 2015) – 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. The gimmick in this issue is that Groo gets sick of being justifiably hated and feared by everyone he meets, so he goes looking for a place where no one has heard of him. The highlight for me, though, was the scene at the end, which is a clever reversal of the running gag where Groo’s presence on a ship invariably causes it to sink. Here, an unscrupulous ship captain tries to take advantage of this by putting Groo aboard a ship that they want to sink, so of course what happens instead is that the ship reaches its destination safely. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this exact same plot was used in Groo the Wanderer #48. Probably Mark and Sergio just forgot that they’d used this idea before, since Groo #48 was published in 1989. But I read that issue last year and I remember it clearly, and I was disappointed that this current issue had an unoriginal plot.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #139 (Marvel, 1974) – A-. This is an excellent example of the work of Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, a somewhat underrated creative team. This issue is the first appearance of both the Grizzly and Mrs. Muggins, Peter’s bad-tempered superintendent. It includes some hilarious scenes, including one in which Spider-Man saves JJJ from falling out a window, and then comments that neither of them will ever forgive him. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this issue is that apparently in 1974 it was possible to rent an apartment in Chelsea for $110 a month.
BATGIRL #38 (DC, 2015) – B/B-. I continue to be extremely impressed by Babs Tarr’s artwork, but I’m not as impressed by the writing in this series. I’m starting to feel like Cameron and Brenden don’t really believe in the premise of this series. Somehow it feels like they’re just going through the motions of writing about a social-media- and tech-savvy female superhero, and their hearts aren’t really in it. In terms of its outreach to female readers, this series seems less effective to me than its counterparts at Marvel.
AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #7 (Archie, 2015) – A/A+. For a brief period this was the third best comic on the stands, after Saga and Sex Criminals, but there’s been such a long gap between issues that I almost forgot the series existed. This issue is a nice reminder. Because of the premise of this series, Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa is able to investigate aspects of the characters that are off-limits in a regular Archie comic, and this issue includes some fascinating and disturbing revelations about Betty and Cheryl Blossom. And Francesco Francavilla is one of the top artists in the industry – I know I just said that about Fábio Moon and Gabriel Ba, but it’s true about Francesco too. Also, this issue includes a reprinted story with art by Doug Wildey.
CHILLING ADVENTURES IN SORCERY #4 (Archie, 1973) – B+/A-. None of the stories in this issue is a masterpiece, but they’re all pretty fun. The highlight is the opening story, written and drawn by Vicente Alcazar, in which Satan tempts a suicidal man into killing a dictator. There’s also “A Thousand Pounds of Clay” by Don Glut and Alcazar, which I already reviewed when it was reprinted in a recent issue of Afterlife with Archie (or Sabrina, I forget which). Surprisingly the worst story in the issue is the one by Gray Morrow, because it contains way too much text; I’ve heard before that Gray Morrow wasn’t the best storyteller, and this story is evidence of that.