American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #5 (Vertigo) - The final installment of this Nazi vampire spinoff miniseries plays out like a full-on action movie climax. Scott Snyder knowingly and lovingly hits all the expected beats, with the hero sacrificing himself to save the girl, giving her a final kiss as a sendoff before he storms into the center of the Nazi tanks, literally giving the finger to the enemy as he sings the Star-Spangled Banner. It's just that kind of over-the-top pulp craziness. It's also the kind of story where the heroes escape the Nazi vampires by leaping across a seemingly unpassable gap on a motorcycle as, behind them, the towering and recently unearthed godlike ancient vampires demolish the newer, uniformed monsters. Sean Murphy's manic hatching and exaggerated facial expressions are perfect for this explosive material, but he's equally excellent in the comparatively understated and moving coda in the final pages of the book. At that point, when the insanity has abated and the clamor of war faded away, Snyder and Murphy offer up a simple, moving epilogue and a surprisingly sweet last page.
Batgirl #2 (DC) - This series seems to have stirred up a lot of controversy just for giving Barbara Gordon back the use of her legs and making her Batgirl again after decades as the wheelchair-bound Oracle. I can't say I feel too strongly about that decision one way or the other, though the circumstances of Barbara's recovery continue to be pretty vague here. So, putting aside whether or not the basic idea is a good one, Gail Simone's new Batgirl is just a pretty good book about a very likable character whose internal narration wavers between anxiety over her return to superheroics and girlish euphoria at once again being able to swing through the air and fight bad guys. I could do with a little more of the enthusiasm and a little less of the hand-wringing, honestly. It makes sense, though, that this first arc's villain, the Mirror, is basically a personification of survivor's guilt, a perfect foil for a hesitantly recovering Barbara who isn't quite sure why she's experienced this "miracle." Barbara's new roommate is just a bundle of annoying quirks, and her boyfriend is bland, but this issue has some kinetic, intense fight sequences (fluidly rendered by Ardian Syaf) and the writing has a breezy quality even when it's mired in Barbara's self-doubt and uncertainty.
Batman and Robin #2 (DC) - Maybe it's just because I like Bruce Wayne's son Damien as a character, but I'm really digging the way this series seems to be focusing on Bruce's ongoing attempts to channel his son's killer nature and angry temperament into constructive pursuits. Peter Tomasi writes this father/son relationship well, especially in the scene where Bruce awkwardly questions Damien about homework before transitioning into the set-up for a Batman and Robin mission. It's an interesting relationship unlike the dynamic between Batman and any of his previous Robins, and it seems to be what's really driving this book so far. Although, it could just be that the actual villains here are pretty uninteresting, as Batman and Robin take on some generic weapons dealers. Then, at the end of the issue another nemesis shows up, and I'm unsure if I'm supposed to know who this is or not, but I don't, except that he was the guy killing the Russian Batman in the previous issue. I'm not too invested in the actual menace that Tomasi is haphazardly setting up here, whatever it is, but I'll keep coming back to see more of the central father/son relationship.
Batwoman #2 (DC) - At this point, it's almost easy to take JH Williams' interpretation of Batwoman for granted, even just two issues into the character's first solo title. His brilliant, sprawling double-page layouts and mastery of different styles is fully in place by this point. His action scenes are spiky and kinetic, full of pointed edges and panels-within-panels that call attention to points of impact or reveal the X-rayed anatomical contortions behind each well-placed kick. The panels become wavery and watery whenever the ghostly "weeping woman" makes an appearance, and the scenes in the ordinary civilian life of Kate Kane have a comparatively rigid panel structure and soft, brightly lit feminine colors to suggest the disparity between this woman's secret identity and her nightly crimefighting activities. This is an amazing comic in every way, guaranteed to be mindblowing month after month. The best scene in this issue is one in which Kate's detective girlfriend Maggie Sawyer walks around a supernatural crime scene, using the evidence to concoct a coherent story of what went down, and as she speaks the battle springs into life in the air around her, shaped by her conclusions and conjectures. Williams excels at this kind of diagrammatic layout. He excels, too, at jamming together contrasting styles, as he does when Maggie meets Cameron Chase, who's rendered in a shadowy noir style even in daytime, recalling her appearance in the short-lived Chase series that Williams illustrated back in 1998. The issue ends on an abrupt cliffhanger that suggests that the comic simply ran out of pages — Williams' plotting may be a little shakier than his jaw-dropping artwork — but otherwise this is yet another remarkable, unmissable installment in one of comics' most consistent visual treats.
Deathstroke #2 (DC) - I'm not sure what to say about this one, because even more than in the first issue, Kyle Higgins and Joe Bennett have just delivered a 20-page fight scene that takes all of two minutes to read, if even. It's got explosions, decapitations, and Deathstroke's rather quick destruction of a goofy, armored-up, roller-blading guy called Road Rage. There's not much at stake here, and barely a hint that the title character has even worked up a sweat after easily dispatching everyone who comes at him. It's lightweight and utterly disposable, with less of the quirky touches of personality and humor that spiced up the first issue. This comic is bound to just be the bloodbath-of-the-month and it does that just fine.
Demon Knights #2 (DC) - The first issue of this series was one of the bigger surprises of the New 52, since I didn't really have any expectations for it and it wound up being a whole lot of fun. This second issue lives up to the promise of throwing a whole bunch of DC's olden-times magic/immortal characters together to fight dragons and an evil queen. It's fast-paced and action-packed, inflected with the fun-loving spirit of warriors who love nothing more than digging into a tough fight and feasting on dragon meat when it's all over. Paul Cornell's dialogue has a peppy zing that mostly compensates for his characters' tendency to narrate their every move. This light-hearted style only occasionally gets tiresome, as when Cornell takes a cue from manga's jokey meta asides, which results in some very out-of-place dialogue. Other than such small dialogue issues, though, this remains a rollicking good time, gorgeously illustrated by Diogenes Neves and Oclair Albert, whose lush, European-influenced style is perfectly suited to this old-school wizards-and-demons adventure.
FF #10 (Marvel) - This is a pretty low-key set-up issue, a breather after last issue's climactic extended battle, which didn't so much conclude as take a momentary break. Jonathan Hickman continues to excel at hitting just the right emotional beats. The prime example here is a quiet scene between Sue and Reed Richards, staged so that Sue is looking away from her husband, facing the "camera," her expression mostly guarded but betraying a little smile, knowing and satisfied, when Reed tells her she's right. The scene plays out entirely in small shifts of facial expressions as husband and wife reconcile without laying it all out in so many words. Barry Kitson, filling in for regular artist Steve Epting, does an excellent job in moments like this, with a glossy, economical style that defines faces in a few graceful lines. Thanks to Hickman's facility for one-on-one dialogue scenes and Kitson's unshowy feel for the emotional nuance of Hickman's writing, what could have played out as a mere lead-up to bigger plots instead feels like a series of emotional climaxes for Reed and Sue, Ben Grimm, even the peripheral Inhuman Crystal and her Kree husband.
Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #2 (DC) - This is stronger than the already good first issue of Jeff Lemire's Hellboy-ish paranormal series, because with most of the exposition out of the way Frankenstein and his troupe of monster soldiers just leap into action here. The best line comes early on, when Frankenstein slaps an old woman (she had it coming) and deadpans, "Frankenstein's vengeance does not discriminate on the basis of age." After that, there's more frenzied action sequences with massive monsters, rendered in scratchy scribbles of dark lines by Albert Ponticelli. Lemire takes a break in the middle of the issue to provide a backstory for one of his newly introduced monster characters, a female Creature from the Black Lagoon lookalike, which suggests that maybe each of these early issues will fill in the pasts of these new characters one by one. It's perhaps an inelegant way of shoehorning in exposition, but it works in this case because the flashback is packed with little bits of weird science fun, and because it ties in thematically with this issue's revelations about child sacrifice in the small town where this interdimensional infestation has broken loose.
Green Lantern #2 (DC) - It's not too surprising that Geoff Johns has wasted little time in getting Hal Jordan back in a Green Lantern costume after spending the first issue of this title powerless. It's not a total return to the status quo given that Jordan's power is now tied to his one-time nemesis Sinestro, but Jordan once again has a costume and a ring, even if it's not a "true" Green Lantern ring. Considering how clumsy and hackneyed the plotting of Hal's human misaventures were in that first issue, this is probably a good thing, and this issue establishes the terms of the unlikely Jordan/Sinestro team-up with some solid action. Sinestro's lesson to Hal has a hint of meta about it, an acknowledgment that for all the power of the Lantern rings, most of those who have wielded them have not changed worlds but simply constructed big green weapons to fight other superpowered beings. It's a distant echo of the end of Alan Moore's Miracleman, which questioned why superheroes with awe-inspiring power always thought so small. The point is perhaps erased when the very next scene involves Sinestro and Hal constructing big green weapons to kill a marauding alien, but it's nice to think that maybe Johns will work his way up to something more ambitious over time. This series isn't blowing me away so far, but it's offering up interesting, dynamic characters and some good old spacefaring action, and so far at least that's been enough.
The Punisher #4 (Marvel) - Though Greg Rucka's new series bears the name of antihero Frank Castle, the Punisher, what makes it worth reading is that, this time around, Castle isn't quite the center of his own book. In Rucka's first issue, the Punisher was a ghostly presence glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye, little more than a blurry flash of that white skull logo and the bloody evidence left behind in his wake. He's become a bit more of a physical presence in subsequent issues, and in this fourth issue he speaks more — 25 whole words — than he has in the previous three issues combined. But this is still a comic about the effect of the Punisher, the idea of the Punisher, more than it is about the man. That makes sense; the Punisher has starred in a lot of comics and has had a lot of writers define and redefine him. His psychology is pretty well established at this point. Rucka has decided to take the Punisher himself as a given, a powerful force tearing through New York's criminal underground, and his Punisher is more about the cops, journalists, and crime victims who would be glimpsed at the fringes of a more traditionally centered Punisher story. That street-level grit is affecting, especially when it comes to the continued emphasis on Rachel Alves, the survivor of a wedding day shootout that killed her new husband and most of her family. The Punisher is all about revenge, but Rucka seems interested in exploring crime and vengeance in ways that go far beyond the Punisher's simple, predictable, bloody retribution. In this, he's ably assisted by Marco Checchetto, whose art is gritty but somehow also soft-focused, as though there's a shadowy fog hanging over everything, blurring the black-and-white moral clarity of the Punisher's world. This issue is much more conventional in form than the brutal, near-wordless bloodletting of issue #3 or the destabilizing ambiguity of issue #1, but it continues Rucka's examination of the grimy nighttime world that revolves around Marvel's most ferocious antihero.
PunisherMAX #18 (Marvel) - If Rucka's Punisher stays fresh and interesting by taking a new approach to the character, Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon's MAX series is much more traditionalist. Aaron's Punisher is very much recognizable as the hardboiled killer of Garth Ennis' justly praised MAX run, an alternate take on the Punisher, free of mainstream Marvel continuity and also free to be much more explicit in terms of sex, language and especially all the inevitable blood and guts. Aaron doesn't do anything too daring here, just offers up more of the same for those who loved Ennis' Punisher. The book has been structured elementally, with each arc examining a character: Kingpin, Bullseye, then Castle himself. In the current "Homeless" arc, there's no such clear character focus, but Castle has been reduced to zero, having to rebuild his store of weapons, re-establishing himself as a force on the streets after a stint in jail. This is a Punisher book where Elektra can dispatch a room full of mob flunkies in memorably gruesome ways, tearing out eyeballs and sticking knives up men's noses, then screw the Kingpin on a bloody table for some reason. A few pages later, she goes to bed with Vanessa Fisk instead, a puzzling development that suggests the gleefully juvenile sensibility of this material. Dillon, with long experience drawing similarly trashy stories for Ennis, brings his characteristic physical heft to each disfigurement and death, each gory action sequence. But what he's best at, it turns out, is drawing Frank Castle himself, as an old and grizzled man with hard lines cut into his face as if out of granite, scowl lines etched so deeply into his skin that they're like wartime trenches. Castle's mask-like face is the real star of this series, the craggy visage of a man who's fought and killed his way to the brink of old age without exhausting his appetite for blood.
Resurrection Man #2 (DC) - Oddly enough, I still don't have much of a handle on whether this series is actually any good or not. It's an engaging concept — a guy who dies and is reborn every issue with a new power — written in a fast-paced, jagged style. In this issue, Mitch Shelley goes looking for answers about his own murky past, trying to figure out who he was while various supernatural entities and killer glam girls track him for their own mysterious purposes. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning mostly go for a light, casual writing style that allows the issue to glide by quickly, though there are a few clunkers ("wow, pretty mad surfing skills there, Darryl") to serve as speed bumps. Similarly, Fernando Dagnino's art is not bad, but tends too much towards awkward pin-up poses, especially for the hitwoman villains, who seemingly lounge around in their underwear reading porno mags while waiting for their next mission. (They don't wear a whole lot more while on a mission, for that matter.) This second issue does little to improve upon the problems I had with the first, but there's still something goofily entertaining and intriguing about this off-kilter book. Its odd cast of characters includes the resurrecting man himself, glamorous hitwomen, angels, shape-shifting monsters, and it ends with Shelley plunked down into a weird netherworld with chalk-outlined bodies drawn on the ground and shadowy demons in the sky. If Abnett and Lanning simply mean to keep readers guessing and coming back for more off-kilter, uneven weirdness, so far they're succeeding.
The Shade #1 (DC) - James Robinson returns to one of the characters from his beloved Starman series for a 12-issue miniseries. Thankfully, he definitely does justice to the always-intriguing character of the Shade, capturing the witty, urbane tone of this character perfectly, as well as the emotional openness that characterized Robinson's best work. I haven't followed Robinson or the Starman characters after the end of the great original series, but this already seems like a worthy follow-up. This first issue establishes the scope and the tone of this material, opening with a philosophically inclined conversation between the Shade and Mikaal, one of several characters to bear the mantle of Starman. The dialogue is florid and romantic, as befits an ancient, gentlemanly character like the Shade, but it never gets weighted down by the stylized language. Instead, the dialogue zips and darts around with wit and insight, both in this conversation and a later scene between the Shade and his girlfriend. The action scenes are equally adept, particularly the showdown between Shade and Deathstroke that ends the issue. Cully Hamner's art is great and is especially strong when the Shade begins drawing shadows around himself, his red eyes shining from beneath the brim of his hat, his face becoming a maze of black patterns layered over his skin. Like Robinson's Starman, this is just great comics, with a relentless forward momentum and a real feel for the characters that perfectly balances the action. I'm really looking forward to more of this.
The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror #17 (Bongo) - Traditionally, the "Treehouse of Horror" series has been the annual opportunity for The Simpsons, whether on TV or in print, to mess with the formula, to tell outrageous, surreal, gory stories where the usual rules of the characters don't apply. In the comic, this has often meant that this annual institution has been an opportunity for comic creators from outside the mainstream to tackle the iconic inhabitants of Springfield. This year, the real draw here is a story by Jim Woodring that closes the anthology. But first, Zander Cannon and Gene Ha turn in a loving homage to Nosferatu, with Mr. Burns as the vampire, Homer as Renfield, and Bart as the hapless visitor to the vampire's lair. Cannon and Ha have a lot of fun translating silent film aesthetics to print, including a line of musical notation that runs beneath the panels until Bart decides to turn the record off. It's a fun, quirky read with some clever nods to the story's cinematic source, and several panels recreate iconic compositions from the film, with the most effective being a few silent panels in which Burnsferatu creeps towards the "camera" through a stone archway. The second story in this issue, written by Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's with art by Tom Hodges, is much less successful. It starts as a lame and haphazardly plotted Star Wars pastiche (Hodges is an artist for Star Wars webcomics), tosses in some zombies, and it's just an unfunny tonal mess. Even the lettering is ugly.
Unsurprisingly, Woodring's final story is the issue's primary treat, and it's great indeed. It's a tribute to the classic EC horror comics in which Bart discovers a third-rate EC knockoff comic that terrifies him. Woodring draws the comics within the comic in a throwback style and packs the story with meta gags and weird, unsettling imagery. The first story Bart reads starts with a boy brutally killing a turtle, which leads to a wonderfully awkward panel of his two friends spitting as they deliver the kind of unsubtle moral message that always acted as a counterbalance to the gore in EC-style comics. Woodring's slightly off-model drawings of the Simpsons characters go well with his subtly off-kilter humor. He ends the story with a fantastic meta flourish in which his comic mirrors the comic within the comic, merely implying the gory and gruesome ending. This issue is well worth a look for Woodring's story alone, and moments such as these make one wish that the Treehouse of Horror was more than a yearly event.
Superboy #2 (DC) - At some point, probably soon, I know I'm going to get tired of the new DC titles that offer up dependable, solid superhero entertainment but don't really rise above the pack. When that happens, I think Scott Lobdell's connected Superboy and Teen Titans are pretty sure to fall by the wayside. This is a decent second issue and not much more. There's still a lot of internal narration from Superboy here, infusing the book with the title character's continued quest for self-discovery. And there's a nice balance of governmental conspiracy plotting with, in the latter half of the issue, some all-out action. The rationale behind said action is weak enough that it transparently comes across as the writer deciding, "OK, now we need some action," but it's still pretty fun to watch Superboy and Rose Wilson thrash it out with some shark-like aliens. R.B. Silva's art is attractive and clean, slightly cartoony in a way that makes everyone look like teenagers, which is great for Superboy and slightly problematic for his handlers. All around, this is a good read but I just can't see this ever becoming a must every month.