Monthly Archives: September 2016

Starve vol. 2

I wrote in my review of the first volume of this series that I hoped the issues I had with it could be worked out over the next few volumes.  Well, that’s not going to happen as this second volume is also “Starve’s” last.  I do wonder if Brian Wood saw the writing on the wall after finding out the sales of the first five issues and subsequent collection and reworked his plan for this title as a result.  If that was the case, then I think he pulled it off pretty well.  The first volume of “Starve” was all about renegade chef/terrible husband/deadbeat dad Gavin Cruikshank’s forced return to civilization to burn the cooking show empire he created to the ground.  This time out, we get to see Gavin settle things with his wife, help steer his daughter on a less treacherous path to stardom, and turn an inner city chicken shack into a place where anyone can buy a cheap and satisfying dinner.

Vol. 2 of “Starve” thankfully dispenses with the sentimentality and sanctimony that popped up in the first volume.  This is a volume that’s all business, and goes about it in some surprising ways at times.  We see that right off the bat when Gavin buries the hatchet with his wife and goes off to renovate that chicken shack.  That plotline he runs into could’ve been derailed by the “white savior” trope, but it’s defused both by the protagonist’s penchant for self-destruction and refusal to stick around long enough to take proper credit for what he did.  While an interesting thread, I’m ultimately left wondering what its relevance was to the story as a whole since the rest of the volume is dedicated to showing us how Gavin and his family extricate themselves from the toxic showbiz environment they’ve found themselves in.  There’s plenty of great drama to be had there and some good twists make the story even more enjoyable.  It may not have lasted very long, and the art was always better with storytelling than making the food look good (not sure if that’s an appropriate criticism, but it’s still true), “Starve” still managed to be an entertaining read as it tried to rattle the cages of power with fork and knife in hand.

One-Punch Man vols. 7-8

Regardless of the fact that Saitama doesn’t make good on embodying the title of his series for the concluding half of this battle, his fight against Boros is still a marvel of action spectacle.  If nothing else, one has to admire the utter balls of ONE and Yusuke Murata to depict the climactic moment of the Saitama vs. Boros fight as a series of TWELVE(!) double-page spreads.  They’re followed by a thirteenth two pages later just to drive home how epic Sitama’s battle-ending punch was.  American superhero comics may have more depth to their stories and characterizations, but they all pale before “One-Punch Man” in how utterly thrilling its action is to behold on the page.

Once Boros is out of the picture the rebuilding begins in both a physical and storytelling sense.  With City A wiped off the map, someone has to take up the job of building it back up.  Metal Knight takes up the job, with hints that he and Genos are going to butt heads at some point.  Hopefully it’ll go better for him than his (very) brief showdown with Tornado did.  I’m also still waiting for someone to smack the taste out of Amai Mask/Handsome Kamen’s mouth after he shows up late to the fight, trolls the other heroes for failing to save the city, and then executes some alien prisoners without a second thought.  It’s all great fodder for future storylines and setting them up here helps keep the momentum rolling in the wake of the Boros battle.  (Also, the third bonus manga in vol. 7, about a run-in between Saitama and the police, is really kind of perfect in how it shows heroes and police should ultimately act.)

Vol. 8’s main story doesn’t pick up on any of these threads, choosing instead to focus on one of the S-Rank Heroes who didn’t take part in the previous fight.  While King is hailed as one of the strongest and most fearsome heroes around, he’s hiding a secret that would bring his career crashing down around him. While some might think that the reasons behind this are a little silly and contrived, I think that the world of “One-Punch Man” is just ridiculous enough to support them.  There’s also more setup for a future crisis as the members of the Hero Organization set about recruiting bad guys to help fight it.  With all these plot threads to choose from, I hope that vol. 9 picks one and follows through on it.  That being said, even if the creators go with a familiar setup like the one vol. 8 leaves off with, I’d be happy with that given their skill with executing familiar superhero stories in a compelling way so far.

Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1953

If what I’ve read is correct, then the next volume of “Hellboy in Hell” represents the end of his saga.  I’ll be finding out the specifics of that once “The Death Card” ships next month.  It certainly doesn’t mean the end of his adventures in comics form, however.  “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.” appears to be specifically designed to deliver some old-school “Hellboy” adventures in the time before the end of his world was set in motion.  That’s clearly apparent from the first four stories collected here, “The Phantom Hand,” “Rawhead & Bloody Bones,” “The Witch Tree,” and “The Kelpie.”  Even if these are set over four decades before the character’s first adventure in “Seed of Destruction,” they have the same winning mix of action, humor, and horror that has marked the best of his short adventures.  It’s also fun to see Hellboy interact with his “dad,” Prof. Bruttenholm, in these stories as well.  Best of all may be the art from Ben Stenbeck.  He’s someone whose work draws a clear inspiration from Mignola’s.  Yet there’s a texture and depth to Stenbeck’s illustrations that sets him apart from Mignola and draws you in as a result.

These stories are followed by two (very) loosely connected ones featuring the debut of Mignola’s new regular co-writer Chris Roberson.  “Wandering Souls” is another short that has Hellboy teaming up with B.P.R.D. psychic Agent Xiang to investigate the haunting of a coal mine out in Wyoming.  Xiang got a “flash” that she needed to be here for this mission and, without giving too much away, she turns out to be right.  It’s a solid, yet familiar story of ghosts, possession, and old remains that’s distinguished mainly by Michael Walsh’s art.  He gives the story an appropriately worn-down look to it while also making the monster fighting appropriately impactful.

Then you get to “Beyond the Fences,” where its bright and lively art from Paolo Rivera stands in stark contrast to the kind of work you’re used to seeing in the “Hellboy” canon.  It’s still pretty great as Rivera is aces with the dog monster that drives most of the action in the story, including Hellboy’s multiple attempts to bring it under control.  The story itself involves the title character and a couple B.P.R.D. members heading out to a suburb in California to investigate a series of missing persons.  The art and action are the star here, though Mignola and Roberson bring in some aspects from previous “B.P.R.D.” stories including the Enkaladite from “1948” and my least favorite little Russian vampire girl.  It all gives the impression that we’re getting the setup for a longer story in this timeframe involving the B.P.R.D’s Russian counterpart with a possible explanation of how Varvarra wound up in that jar of hers in the present day.  I’m all for that, though this volume’s biggest strength is in showing how much mileage there still is in short stories about Hellboy’s adventures.

Ultimates: Omniversal vol. 1 — Start With the Impossible

If it wasn’t clear in “New Avengers,” this volume makes it clear that Al Ewing has stepped up to take the mantle of Marvel’s “Big Ideas” guy after Jonathan Hickman left post-”Secret Wars.”  While “Ultimates” may have been the name for the Ultimate Universe’s version of the Avengers (as well as a thoroughly mediocre teen team), their incarnation in the Marvel Universe proper has them being the group who tackles impossible problems.  Problems like Galactus.  Or, if that wasn’t big enough, trying to make sense of Bendis’ long-running (and apparently abandoned by him) “time is broken” subplot by heading outside the known universe to get the numbers they need to even get a handle on where to start with this problem.

This is a title that goes big with its ambition, but also has the necessary level of skill to pull it off.  Yes, some might argue that “solving” the problem of Galactus in two issues may seem kind of rushed.  Particularly when part of their plan involves hitting The Devourer so that he falls back into his old gestation chamber.  Said plan also consists of stealing the necessary parts from a planetary warlord and using Monica “Spectrum” Rambeu’s energy-changing powers to channel enough ISO-8 — the new super-energy isotope that was created with the latest renewal of the Marvel Universe — to fuel the change.  So there’s plenty of craziness here too in just the first arc.  Then you get to the other four issues collected here, which involve the team’s jaunt outside the known universe, dealing with inter-dimensional creepy-crawlies and an old enemy along the way, new revelations about how time works in the Marvel Universe, “Eternity in Chains,” and the return of a certain mad titan and it’s clear that Ewing is just getting warmed up here.

He’s aided quite well in this by Kenneth Rocafort who tackles all of this over-the-top spectacle with admirable gusto.  Rocafort has a clearly detailed style, which you’d think would suffer in trying to deliver big, epic, cosmic-level action, but he keeps things looking remarkably consistent throughout the five issues he does in this volume.  Christian Ward handles the sixth issue, a series of psychedelic meetings between Galactus and other cosmic entities with impressive skill as well.  He’s clearly grown much as an artist since the unfocused work he displayed in “The Infinite Vacation.”

If there’s one thing this volume could stand to work on, it would be its characters.  No new ground is broken with the Black Panther’s role here, though it’s fun to see him do his “smartest man in the room” act on a cosmic level.  Carol “Capt. Marvel” Danvers remains the usual vaguely militaristic blank slate she is in her team book appearances.  While it’s also nice to see Monica Rambeau again, I can’t help but remember how much more interesting and fun she was back in “Nextwave:  Agents of H.A.T.E.”  Adam “The Blue Marvel” Brashear is apparently a holdover from Ewing’s “Mighty Avengers” run and the insight we get into his complicated history, via the team’s run-in with the Anti-Man, makes a good case for the favoritism he’s shown here.

All this being said, the one character I was surprised to find myself liking here is someone that I’ve been lukewarm on in the past.  I know that America Chavez has her fans, but I found Kieron Gillen’s take on her in “Young Avengers” to be disappointingly smug.  She may be a super-strong lesbian who can kick holes into adjacent universes, but all of her successes usually felt like they were demanded by the plot and not her character.  Ewing actually gives the character a sense of fun and showcases her own personal struggles here far better than I’ve seen in her previous appearances.  Showing how she calls up her girlfriend so they can dance together and use the power of lover to heal a rift between universes, and later the physical toll opening the way outside the universe takes on her makes her a more endearing and interesting character.  Score another one for Ewing in doing good work on characters previously defined by Gillen.

This first volume of “Ultimates” shows that big ideas about the Marvel Universe haven’t gone away just because Hickman left.  Ewing lets us know that there’s plenty of interesting, epic things to be done with this universe so long as you’ve got the imagination for it.  Also, anyone who appreciated his meta-commentary on the nature of how characters are defined by their stories from “Agent of Asgard” may want to check this out because it looks like he’s preparing to do the same thing with Galactus here.  No, I don’t think the change undergone by The Devourer here is going to stick.  I do think that his journey back to the status quo is going to be as important and interesting as anything else here.

Uncanny X-Men: Superior vol. 1 — Survival of the Fittest

All of the “X-Men” titles I’ve read so far from Marvel’s latest relaunch have done a good job of offering up familiar yet fun takes on the ideas and characters that have populated the franchise over the years.  This version of “Uncanny X-Men” is a bit different from its peers in that it’s basically an “X-Force” book in disguise.  (Much as I liked it, the swift commercial death-spiral of Si Spurrier’s quirky take on that series has likely forced the “X-Force” name into hibernation for a while.)  Don’t believe me?  We’ve got a team made up of Magneto, Psylocke, Sabretooth, Monet, and Archangel, with Mystique and Fantomex gallivanting around the fringes to likely join up in the next arc.  They’re out to take the fight to those who would attack mutants in their time of trial as they succumb to the M-Pox brought on by the Terrigen Mists.  For this first arc, that would be the Dark Riders, Apocalypse’s disciples who view the threat brought on by the mists as a welcome harbinger of their master’s “survival of the fittest” ethos.  In order to help mutantkind along on their way to extinction, the Dark Riders have decided to take out all of the known mutant healers.  This team of X-Men isn’t about to let that happen, or above finding a more permanent solution to the menace of this threat.

Cullen Bunn likely got this gig off the great work he did with his “Magneto” series, and his grasp of the character is as solid as ever.  You can believe that he’d be able to hold together this group of misfits and psychos through sheer force of personality.  As for the rest of the cast:  Psylocke makes a good foil, Archangel’s inclusion is clearly fodder for a future story, Monet’s here for added snark and strength, and my god I hope they find a way to revert Sabretooth to his natural personality soon.  All the “inversion” from the “Axis” event has accomplished with his character is to make him into a toothless Wolverine-lite.

Whether or not these characters look good in this story will likely come down to your feelings on its artist, Greg Land.  Only the occasional manic grins from the female characters bother me about his style at this point.  I still think he’s better suited to drawing more outlandish sci-fi stuff, and that’s not something we see here.  At least Bunn is good with balancing this cast in what is basically a straightforward action story.  It’s fine for what it is, but I hope that the threads left hanging at the end of this volume lead somewhere more interesting than the (hopefully) final showdown with some disposable thugs that was served up here.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 2: Battle Tendency vol. 4

With this, we’ve finally caught up to Viz’s original release of the series.  That arc, “Stardust Crusaders,” showed “Jojo’s” finally hitting its stride and cast a shadow over the deluxe edition releases of the first two parts of this title.  “Battle Tendency” has been on an upward trajectory over the course of its four volumes, and with this fourth volume it’s easy to see how mangaka Hirohiko Araki was able to kick things into high gear for what came after.  I mean, this is the kind of story where Joseph Joestar has to take down evil vampire Wamuu in a chariot race, but needs to grab the sledgehammer hanging from a pillar in order to have the edge in the fight.  He’s able to do that after pulling one of his dirty tricks at the start, but this doesn’t faze the vampire.  No, Wamuu just grabs THE PILLAR instead!  This isn’t even the craziest thing that happens in their battle.  At one point, Wamuu realizes that he was a fool to rely on his sight because he could see, and then…  Well, it’s probably best that you read this volume to get the full effect.

Though the battle with Wamuu is great stuff, things get a little shakier in the final showdown between Joseph and Kars with the life of the former’s trainer/secret mother Lisa Lisa on the line.  Joseph displays some real cleverness in his tactics as he fights this superior foe, but it all drags on after a while.  Particularly when Kars keeps displaying new “final forms” to come back for one more round after our protagonist keeps taking him down.  Toss in the fact that Lisa Lisa is both made out to be someone who can handle herself and a victim in need of saving, and having Stroheim and his Nazi buddies show up to help turn the tide and the series is on some very wobbly legs as it manages to stick the landing in spite of itself.  Making “Jojo’s” into a generational saga was probably the smartest move Araki made in his development of the series.  He was able to move past these issues in one chapter as the volume closes out on Joseph heading off to Japan to kick off “Stardust Crusaders.”  I’m honestly tempted to go back and re-read it after all this.  I mean, I’ve got to do something until Viz gets around to releasing “Part 4:  Diamond is Unbreakable” in print.

Injection vol. 2

Right now, “Injection” artist Declan Shalvey is busy doing back-up stories for “All-Star Batman” and a “Nick Fury” serial for the “Civil War:  Choosing Sides” miniseries.  I mention this because, while they’re raising his profile, they’re keeping the artist from working on the next volume of this series.  While Warren Ellis has said that Shalvey will be starting in on the third volume later this year, THIS IS STILL TERRIBLE NEWS!  Vol. 1 of “Injection” was good.  Vol. 2 shows that its quality wasn’t a fluke.  It manages to do this while narrowing the focus to tell a specific story while not neglecting the uber-plot about the adaptive intelligence five scientists unleashed on our world.

While the first volume was very much an ensemble effort, we learned more about the other members of the Injection team than Vivek Headland.  Described as a logicist and ethicist (who is very particular about his sandwiches), these skills are the core of his day job as an investigator.  What does he investigate?  This time out it’s the kidnapping of a ghost.

John Van Der Zee is a giant in the financial industry who has recently lost his mistress in an accident, and his son a week later.  After the death of his son, Van Der Zee started receiving ethereal visits from his deceased mistress via a specific photo that he would look at every night.  Then the photo was stolen.  Before Headland can start pressing his client for further details, he realizes something about the ham that was used in the sandwiches prepared for them.  That would be the fact that it came from a human being.  This leads Headland to confrontations with a terrorist organization, the aftermath of repeated ghost coitus, further interactions with his Injection team members, and a facet of the Injection itself.

Ellis has said on his weekly newsletter that this represented his take on updating the “Sherlock Holmes” formula for the modern era.  Headland is clearly in the title role as the smartest man in the room who clearly has no problem with leading everyone else around by the nose.  He has a partner in Red, a former mercenary who accepted his employer’s offer of employment/servitude for life in the wake of the Cyclopean Pigdog of Sumatra incident.  The subject matter is suitably bizarre, as you’d expect from Ellis, but with a rigorous logic holding it all together.  It’s also filled with some of the writer’s sharpest dialogue in recent memory.  Which is good because there’s a lot of it in this volume.

Though the mystery at the core of the story here is resolved in a satisfying fashion, it’s main purpose is twofold.  One part of it is to give us a better understanding of Headland after he was given the short shrift in the first volume.  This turns out to be a very good thing because while he’s pitched as the kind of socially maladjusted individual whose quirks help him solve crimes, we find out that the man has a remarkably wide-ranging and varied experience of the weirdness that life has to offer.  Aside from showing us how Headland knows what human meat tastes like, Ellis and Shalvey let us know that he got to know the Dalai Lama well enough to know the man likes gin, has confidential informant arrangements with several law enforcement agencies, has issues with bears, and — in the volume’s most bravura sequence — possesses a remarkably diverse sex life.

That leads us to the other purpose of the narrative, which is basically Ellis giving a middle finger to the notion of detectives in fiction being little more than human noticing machines.  Prior to the sequence in question, Headland gives his approval for Red to go off for some human interaction (read:  a date), to which his subordinate makes the remark that his employer knows little about such a thing.  Cue four pages of Headland’s sexual history with various women, men, a “dongzilla,” and one member of the Injection team.  As he notes in these flashbacks feelings are evidence, and if you remove yourself from the human condition then you will never have enough information to solve a problem.  Not only does this sentiment have the ring of truth to it, this naturally turns out to be a key factor in the case of Mr. Van Der Zee’s missing ghost.  While this sequence does feel like it’s Ellis himself talking directly to the reader, it’s easy to forgive due to how insightful and fun it is.  Assuming anything involving a “dongzilla” is your idea of a good time.

While Headland is the star of the show here, and it’s a star turn bright enough to make me wish that the series was popular enough to warrant a separate ongoing title around his non-Injection-related adventures, the rest of the team isn’t neglected either.  Simeon and Brigid are called upon to utilize their respective talents in this investigation, which subsequently prompts a run-in with an aspect of the Injection itself.  Surprisingly, this case does have more than a tangential relationship to the entity’s ongoing efforts to make the 21st Century more interesting and unsafe.  Maria shows up briefly so we can see that she hasn’t been forgotten about, which is somewhat understandable given that we experienced most of the first volume through her eyes.

The other member of the Injection team getting the most focus here is Robin “Not A Wizard” Morrell, who has been approached by the British Government with an offer of working in the Breaker’s Yard.  It’s a supernatural, ghost-busting position that his family has traditionally worked in over the years and something that he doesn’t want very much to do with.  This position, however, would allow access to certain governmental resources that would be useful in the team’s efforts to control the Injection, so Robin finds himself pressured by both Headland and Maria to accept it.  The impression we get here, from how Robin’s conversation with Maria is interpreted by the Injection (hey, it turns out that she’s not the only one who can hear it) to his actions at the end of the volume, is that this may not be the best thing for everyone involved.

All of this looks great under Shalvey’s pencils as he has a great understanding of the nuance needed to sell a volume of comics where most of the people are simply talking to each other.  The man’s skill with depicting the process of violence is also utilized to great effect here, as a single panel showing the effect of a man getting shot in his elbow is distinctively unsettling.  So yeah, I’m a little disappointed that he’s working on other projects right now instead of diving straight into vol. 3.  Though I’m sure this break will let Ellis get ahead on his scripts, and the artist’s increased profile may even translate into increased sales for the next volume.  Then again, sales for the third volume of “Injection” should increase regardless because this one was really damn good.  Featuring a great story contained in a single volume while also advancing the main plot with a great deal of action, humor, and wit, it’s a marvel of how entertaining comics can be when both creators are working in sync and are fully invested in the material.

Abe Sapien vol. 7: The Secret Fire

Abe’s ongoing series hasn’t been the brightest spot in the Mignolaverse, creatively speaking.  Actually, let’s not mince words:  For the majority of its run, “Abe Sapien” has embodied some of the worst characteristics you can find in Mike Mignola’s writing.  There have been plenty of vaguely cryptic hints about the title character’s role in the end of the world, low-energy stories that can’t generate excitement even when the monster-punching starts, lots of characters speaking in cthonic-sounding tongues, and a desire to treat this story with a seriousness that it doesn’t earn.  John Arcudi’s knack for strong characterization and witty, self-deflating dialogue has effectively blunted these tendencies over in “B.P.R.D.” over the years, but “Abe” co-writer Scott Allie has failed to have a similar effect here.  Also, the artistic duo of the Fiumara brothers has been decidedly uneven, both can do monsters and supernatural menaces very well, but Max’s humans have a tendency to wind up looking creepier that his creatures.  Sebastian’s efforts have been uniformly good throughout the series, though the less said about his efforts to emulate early Mignola in this volume the better.

“The Secret Fire” does at least one thing right:  We’re finally told why Abe is so important to the ongoing apocalypse and his role in the next age of man.  It’s a relief to have this payoff if nothing else.  The problem with it is that Abe, and the reader, find this out through a lengthy explanation as a mother translates for her daughter speaking in those aforementioned cthonic tongues.  It effectively amounts to one long scene where we’re told why the character is important to the plot without any appreciable demonstration of it.  Granted, it’s implied that Abe’s importance will manifest itself after the end of the world which makes it kind of hard to show off.  This is a “Mignolaverse” book, however, and letting something like the ongoing apocalypse get in the way of the story being told shouldn’t be such an obvious dealbreaker.

There has been one consistently good thing about this series:  The ongoing quest of Gustav Strobl.  He’s been trying to secure the best place for himself in the new world, and he finally figures out how to do that in this volume.  What makes his journey so interesting is that in contrast to all other antagonists in the Mignolaverse, and nearly all other bad guys I’ve read about in fiction, it’s pitched overtly towards his self-destruction.  Strobl has knowledge, but he wields it in a reckless manner while his arrogance keeps him from noticing all of the literal and metaphorical warnings to turn back and save himself here.  This time, it just costs him his nose.  It’s obvious that Strobl will wind up being just clever enough to get himself killed in some unspeakably horrible manner and then tortured for the rest of his existence in Hell.  That makes me feel just the tiniest bit of sympathy for the man, and a genuine desire to see how it all works out for him in the next (final?) volume.

All-New X-Men: Inevitable vol. 1 — Ghosts of Cyclops

Between this “Extraordinary X-Men,” and “All-New Wolverine,” it seems that the direction for the franchise in the wake of Bendis’ run has been to embrace the familiar and return to what has worked before.  That means lots of character-driven drama between teams with defined members and actual fights against established members of their rogues’ gallery.  While the previous two titles were good examples of this trend, I wasn’t expecting as much from this title given that its writer, Dennis Hopeless, has yet to have a truly breakout superhero or creator-owned title to his credit.  I’m happy to report that this title may be it.

You could split this volume into two arcs as the team — made up of the still time-displaced Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, and Angel, along with Wolverine, Kid Apocalypse, and Oya — faces off against a group of wannabe mutant revolutionaries who have taken after Cyclops the Older, and a more refined version of the Blob as he terrorizes Parisian restauranteurs.  Standard issue stuff, to be sure, but it’s fun seeing the kids out to fight the good fight.  Particularly when you’ve got someone like Mark Bagley illustrating these issues as he excels at drawing superhero action and young characters.

What impressed me the most about this volume, however, was Hopeless’ grasp of his cast and how he manages things so that (almost) everyone gets some time to establish themselves here.  Cyclops has his issues with how he turns out in the future, Bobby has difficulty learning how to successfully flirt with guys, Hank is worried that he’s behind the curve in the future, Idie still has her issues with Christianity, and Warren and Laura have their unique relationship issues to work out.  Some of this stuff can be on the nose and more than a little melodramatic.  It still manages to come from a place of honesty regarding the characters, and I have to admit that Wolverine and Angel as a couple makes more sense after seeing how they act together here.  Evan “Kid Apocalypse” is the only one who gets the short end of the stick here as he’s mainly defined by how he responds to the actions of the rest of the cast.  Given that the next volume collects the “Apocalypse Wars” tie-in issues, that’s likely to be remedied.  Though there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan here and the idea of the time-displaced X-Men ever going back to the past isn’t even addressed here, I still got plenty of enjoyment out of this volume just from seeing them hang out and then go fight the bad guys.