3 New Stories (Fantagraphics) - Pamphlet-format comics from indie publishers are pretty rare these days, with most smaller publishers having migrated towards the bookstore market and "graphic novels." So it's nice when something like this comes along, an actual floppy comic with three stories by Dash Shaw. I suspect the demise of Fantagraphics' anthology MOME may have something to do with this release, as these little experiments are exactly the kind of thing that Shaw would've published in those pages. With no regular outlet for these kinds of short stories, which have always formed a significant portion of his artistic output, he's assembled a few of them here. The middle story is a very short "adaptation" of a Girls Gone Wild segment, similar in form to the dating-show adaptations Shaw did in MOME, though not as substantial — he doesn't manage to burrow into the emotional core of this shallow video product the way he had with his earlier TV/video adaptations. "Object Lesson" is a pointed surrealist piece about the current economic situation, a barbed satire in which an out-of-work detective is sent back to high school due to a clerical error, while his family starves and resorts to eating the dog, his wife encouraging him to, "Lower your standards. Abolish your goals. Cower. Give up. Please." Throughout the comic, Shaw's drawings are overlaid on collages of paintings and photographs, full of symbols — Spider-Man, gold coins, a desert vista — that comment on the action and also serve as backgrounds and coloring. It's a potent, ambiguous portrait of a society where standards, goals, and morality have been rendered obsolete, where education is a bad joke, where making money means resigning oneself to serving a ridiculous system. Similarly, the final story depicts a children's prison where kids have been jailed for petty offenses, prevented from deviating in even the smallest ways from a restrictive series of laws and orders. On the chillingly nonchalant final page, the relentlessly upbeat heroine shrugs off the violence she's seen, a sign of how this kind of system encourages detachment and dehumanization. This is undoubtedly a bleak little comic, but as usual with Shaw, it's also formally inventive and unforgettably potent, communicating some very strong emotional and political truths through its blunt symbolism.
Astonishing X-Men #62 (Marvel) - I wasn't reading this title before its recent involvement in the conclusion of David Lapham's Age of Apocalypse, but I figured I'd check in on this follow-up issue in the hopes that some surviving AOA characters might still be hanging around. No such luck, but this issue is a decent enough, low-key character piece. I'm not sure if the book is always like this, but Marjorie Liu does a good job, in the complete absence of action, of providing quiet character beats and relationship dramas. Very simple stuff, as basic as Kitty Pryde leaning her head on Wolverine's shoulder, after getting shuffled to the side by her boyfriend Iceman during an earlier awkward moment. Artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta's elegant, expressive art is perfectly suited to this kind of understated drama; it's all in the body language, the subtle facial expressions, the careful staging of the characters within the frame. I have a feeling things are bound to head into more conventional mutant action soon enough, but I would happily read a quiet little book like this on a regular basis.
Avengers #11 (Marvel) - Jonathan Hickman's dual run on this title and New Avengers continues to sprawl; while New Avengers has been almost unrelentingly dark and grim and single-minded, the adjectiveless title is looser, epic in scope, leaping around from one thing to the next like a careening pinball, crashing from one shard of plot to another. Here, a group of Avengers attempt to infiltrate an A.I.M.-sponsored weapons deal, posing as gambling fun-seekers while they try to suss out clues. With Mike Deodato's glossy art giving the whole thing an Ocean's Eleven heist movie glow, this issue has a lighter tone than most of Hickman's work on these titles so far. It doesn't always work, and some stabs at humor over Black Widow's plan to take violent shortcuts feel very forced, but most of the issue is quite fun. The highlight is Cannonball and Sunspot convincing a couple of A.I.M. agents to skip the obligatory fight scene and have a fun weekend of boozing and partying instead, a sequence that wouldn't be tonally out of place in Matt Fraction's Hawkeye. Meanwhile, to satisfy those seeking some action, a Shang Chi fight scene is threaded through the whole issue. This is a pretty minor piece of the overall puzzle, probably the weakest single issue of Hickman's Avengers yet, and only at the end is an important piece of information delivered. This will be a mere blip in the eventual omnibus (which is the perfect format for these epic Hickman runs) but as a single issue it's just on a slightly lower level than the rest of the series has been.
Avengers Assemble #15AU (Marvel) - Big surprise, but while Age of Ultron itself has been very good, most of these AU tie-in issues are very unnecessary. This one's set in the early hours of Ultron's takeover, and has Captains Marvel and Britain going up against Ultron with the help of some very whimsical British heroes who, if I'm not mistaken, were invented especially for the occasion. Al Ewing guests for regular writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Butch Guice is excellent as ever, but it's all pretty much pointless, because what can any of these tie-ins show besides variations on heroes failing to beat Ultron? Ewing indulges in some fun-enough Britophilia, and there are some nice but all-too-brief sequences when the video-game-infiltrating hero Computer Graham matches pixels with Ultron, but otherwise this is pretty forgettable.
Batman #20 (DC) - The conclusion of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Clayface two-parter is just OK, which compared to some of what's gone on in this title, is a minor triumph. Compared to the ridiculous revelations that capped the Owls storyline or the sputtering non-event of the Joker story, a straightforward Clayface battle that ends with the villain viciously imitating the recently dead Damien Wayne is definitely a step up. There are still some rather head-scratching moments, like Batman pretending to wear a DNA mask taken from Bruce Wayne, but for the most part this is decent if unexciting. It's also odd how out-of-step the relatively well-balanced Bruce seen here is with the grief-stricken lunatic Peter Tomasi is depicting in Batman and Robin, one of the problems with there being something like ten Batman-related titles coming out every month. Unfortunately, there's still no sign of Snyder getting back to the tight noirish detective stories of his pre-New 52 Batman work, and since he's now gearing up for what promises to be a full year's worth of excruciatingly boring origin stories, this ship probably isn't going to be righted anytime soon.
Batman & Red Hood #20 (DC) - In the wake of Damien Wayne's death in Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated, Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin is being retitled a few times to co-star first Red Robin and now Red Hood, with other Batman sidekicks and friends set to appear in the title in coming months. Other than Morrison himself, Tomasi seems to be the main Bat-writer dealing with the fallout of Damien's death, and specifically its effect on Bruce, as seen most memorably so far in #18, a silent issue in which Patrick Gleason's brooding art captured the grieving father's rage and despair over the loss of his son and crimefighting partner. Now Tomasi and Gleason have Batman working through the five stages of grief with help from his friends, and it's been heartbreaking and really well-done, a very powerful companion piece to Morrison's work — while Morrison barrels forward towards the likely epic conclusion of his years-long run, Tomasi pauses in the shadows, dealing with the emotional meltdown that follows Bruce's personal tragedy. In this issue, Batman is especially brutal, both with the assassins who he and Red Hood bust up (Batman purposefully deadens the nerves in their hands so they'll never be able to shoot a gun, or feed themselves, again) and in his dealings with Jason Todd, the man under the Red Hood mask and once a Robin himself. The issue's climax is really powerful, both in what it says about Batman's grief over Damien, and in the hurt reaction of Jason, who feels like he deserves better than this cruel manipulation. As in the last issue, where Batman tried to recruit Frankenstein to help him bring Damien back to life, Tomasi is dealing with the messy, ugly, awkward reality of grief, and the raw, ferocious emotions spilling across these pages are really compelling.
Chin Music #1 (Image) - A new horror/supernatural series from Steve Niles (of 30 Days of Night fame) and artist Tony Harris. I was anticipating some good gritty horror, but I didn't think much of this virtually impenetrable first issue, which doles out very little text or dialogue or actual plot — for an introductory issue, there's surprisingly little to hold onto here. Some kind of supernaturally powered guy (a google search tells me he's named Shaw, though the issue isn't so informative) is attacked in what seems to be pre-Twentieth Century Egypt. He's burned and stripped down to a skeleton, which somehow still lives, and flees (or is sent) through time to Prohibition-era Chicago, where he quickly comes into contact with Elliot Ness (who barely reacts to the spectacle of an Arabic-speaking living skeleton) and Al Capone. There's just not much here, and the time travel stuff seems very cutesy, the kind of time travel story where a fight between supernatural beings is used as an explanation for the Sphinx losing its nose, and where the main character will immediately meet any famous historical figures who happen to be in his time. The history-changing ending isn't enough of a hook to bring me back for more, nor is Tony Harris' art, which is nice and moody but can't distract from the essential slightness of this issue.
Constantine #3 (DC) - Yeah, so Peter Milligan's run on Hellblazer wasn't the most exciting or greatest in the title's history, but it was good, and I can't stop thinking about it when reading the new tales of Constantine in the mainstream DC universe. Everything Milligan (and many other writers in Hellblazer's storied history) did well has been jettisoned. The supporting cast is anemic and poorly developed, with characters showing up out of nowhere and heading back there as soon as their plot function has been fulfilled. The book is relentlessly plot-driven, with none of the downtime or weird diversions that always made Hellblazer so fun. And most importantly, Constatine's essential aimlessness has been sacrificed. One of the best things about Constantine was always that he wasn't a hero, that he almost never set out to do big quests for their own sake, but now not only does he have a mission, it's a mission that's explicitly spelled out in the intro box that appears on each issue's title page. It's just totally the wrong approach: Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes throw in all the superficial signifiers, the cigarettes and British lingo, but the soul, the attitude, the warped and wild aesthetic, is lost in translation.
Fearless Defenders #4 (Marvel) - Cullen Bunn's had a pretty disappointing career at Marvel so far, and this is the first book he's done for them that really has something to recommend it. It's a goofy, pulpy B-movie kind of book, with an all-female cast, and it has a breezy quality to its action and its banter. Will Sliney's art is slick and his women are undoubtedly sexy, but the book thankfully doesn't resort to outright cheesecake. It's pretty much the definition of a fun, lightweight action comic that's easy to read but not necessarily essential.
Infinity - Free Comic Book Day (Marvel) - Despite not going to a comic shop on Saturday, I did snag a couple of FCBD books at my local shop, including this one. This is a teaser for Jonathan Hickman's upcoming Infinity miniseries, a summer event involving Thanos coming to Earth. As expected, it's all set-up to establish a sense of encroaching doom, but it's beautifully illustrated by Jim Cheung, who turns in some of the best work I've ever seen from him. The alien creatures who serve Thanos are just seething with menace. I'm looking forward to this event, which will probably play like a brief, violent outgrowth from Hickman's larger Avengers run. Also included here is a brief and not bad Thanos/Destroyer fight story from 1977, written by Scott Edelman and drawn by Mike Zeck. Plus a very short excerpt of Warren Ellis' upcoming Avengers graphic novel, way too brief to get any idea of what it'll be like, though the back-and-forth patter between Captain America and a few other Avengers has some nice spark to it.
The Private Eye #2 (Panel Syndicate) - This is Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's new self-published, digital-only, pay-what-you-want comic, which so far is great for reasons well beyond its attention-getting distribution method. It's set in a future where the era of Internet over-sharing backfired in such a spectacular fashion that now everyone is obsessed with privacy, with most people hiding their names and identities behind masks and role-playing constructs of various degrees of complexity, shedding skins whenever they feel like it. It's a fascinating idea and a wonderfully realized world: one of Vaughan's strengths has always been taking fantasy or sci-fi concepts and building very real-feeling worlds around them, and this one is no exception. Martin's gorgeous art (with a big help from colorist Muntsa Vicente) renders this world vibrant and exciting, stuffed with people hiding behind all sorts of masks, as the underground private eye Patrick Immelmann finds that his client has been murdered. Martin lends a noirish neon-lit vibe to the many night scenes here, particularly a haunting trip to a fringe area where abandoned trains and sewer tunnels have been converted into makeshift homes for masked drug users and dealers.
Prophet #35 (Image) - Brandon Graham's revival of Rob Liefeld's Prophet is one of the most ambitious mainstream comics out, a wild and at times barely coherent sci-fi epic that has taken its time showing its hand with regards to what the hell is going on. The picture is a bit clearer now, with an ancient empire starting to re-emerge while rebels gather their forces to resist, and this issue alternates between the two stories, while also alternating between artists, since Graham has gathered a small staple of artists and associated each one with a different set of characters. Simon Roy handles the perspective of the "New-Father" Prophet who serves the empire, while Giannis Milonogiannis draws the "Old Man" Prophet and his group of anti-empire rebels. Graham exploits the contrast between Roy's thick lines and lumpy forms and Milonogiannis' comparatively thin, minimalist work (which is much closer aesthetically to Graham's own art) to delineate the two groups and their stories, which at this point are still very separate but seem fated to unite eventually. As always, there's lots to love here on a sheer conceptual level, from the way Graham treats a battle scene like a video game or a diagram, with little icons representing the gradually depleting forces on each side, to the Old Man's poignant confrontation with an artifact from his past. Also, the previous issue's backup story by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward continues here, more evidence of Graham's great taste in showcasing indie auteurs doing great sci-fi work. This serial is nicely creepy and ambiguous, concerning a man sacrificed to a giant monster and methodically going to work in the creature's insides.
Suicide Squad #20 (DC) - The first issue of a new run on this title by Image writer Ales Kot. I haven't checked in on this book since its brainless first issue (by Adam Glass), and Kot is certainly a big improvement over that inauspicious debut. It's all setup, but so far it seems like Kot is planning on introducing some interesting plots, and he's got a good handle on the kind of damaged psychologies that made John Ostrander and Kim Yale's Suicide Squad one of the best series of the '80s. I'm still thrown off by the new skinny, sexy Amanda Waller, which remains a bizarre character design choice, but otherwise this is setting up exactly the kinds of frayed minds and bitter tension that should drive this book. Telling a confirmed death-wish case like Deadshot that he now essentially will not be allowed to die is a great start, and Waller, together with her shadowy associate, seems to be pushing all of her inmates to the breaking point in similar ways. Of course, the revelation of Waller's partner in this at the end of the issue is just icing on the bloody cake, since this particular character has been begging for someone to pick up his story since before the New 52 started. A good start, and it's nice for once to be adding a New 52 title back onto my list rather than dropping one.
Thor: God of Thunder #8 (Marvel) - This is great comics. Jason Aaron hasn't exactly been rushing this introductory God Butcher storyline, but the deliberate pacing has allowed Esad Ribic to deliver countless great images along the way, and it's been great fun to watch the story's three versions of Thor struggling against the implacable Gorr. This issue is where it all starts to come to a head, with the young Viking Thor's story finally intersecting with that of the modern Thor and the old Odin-esque one-eyed Thor. Aaron introduces Thor's granddaughters, the future goddesses of thunder — one of whom confesses to "impure thoughts" about her hunky young grandfather — and delivers a kick-ass final page that promises much more adrenaline-fueled action to come.
Ultimate Comics: Ultimates #24 (Marvel) - The President Cap storyline comes to a rather inauspicious end, with Sam Humphries basically shrugging away the one cool idea of his run so far, not that he did too much to really explore Cap as President in the past few issues. Making Captain America the President for the long run would have been bold and provided plenty of potential stories, so it's a shame that Humphries doesn't seem interested in following through on that possibility. Other than that, there's not much here, though it's funny that between this issue and Uncanny Avengers, this week has two separate comics where Thor must destroy falling space debris before it lays waste to a city.
Uncanny Avengers #8 (Marvel) - When Rick Remender brought his epic Uncanny X-Force to a close, I thought that was it, that he'd said all he had to say, but instead the current arc of his new series seems to be just picking up where he left off. It's a credit to Remender that he's been able to tell this many stories about various versions of Apocalypse without it getting a stale, but somehow it's still thrilling to see these threads being picked up yet again, the contagious evil of Apocalypse passed on to yet more new avatars, here with Kang and Red Skull thrown into the mix. Most of the characters from Remender's X-Force aren't here, and the Avengers have been added to the mix, but this still feels like Uncanny X-Force, a sustained study of evil, nature and nurture, the moral implications of violence, and guilt and responsibility.
The Walking Dead #110 (Image) - One of those talky issues where nothing much happens, besides Robert Kirkman backing away a bit from his introduction of a black self-styled "king" who kept a pet tiger, a character who verged on racist caricature when first introduced. Making him a zookeeper who basically feeds off of other people's legends about him redeems the character somewhat, as does acknowledging that he's kind of a male version of fan-favorite Michonne, who self-styled herself as a badass urban samurai with a sword that she's apparently not as well-trained with as she pretends to be (not that that's stopped her from being an actual badass with it all through the series). Anyway, this plot is still crawling towards the eventual big confrontation with the villainous Negan, perhaps a little too slowly even by Kirkman's usual patient standards.
Wolverine #3 (Marvel) - After the frenzied one-two punch of this series' first two issues, Paul Cornell slows things down a bit for this one, as Wolverine teams up with Nick Fury Jr. (yep, still a ridiculous character) to track down some aliens. The slower pace reveals that this maybe isn't as good or fun as it initially seemed to be. Wolverine's new supporting cast seems to be made up of pub-crawling cast-offs from Hellblazer, and their introduction is really awkward, and then there's lots of fighting for very unclear reasons, and by the end it seems as though the only reason to stick around at all is Alan Davis' still-brilliant cartoony art.