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Thursday Comics Hangover: Super women

In what could very possibly be some sort of a record, Marvel Comics this week published three first issues of three different series starring superheroes who are women. Even better, all three of them are great fun. They’re classic superhero comics; compelling stories about conflicted characters in outlandish situations.

The Mighty Thor #1 establishes the new status quo for the title: Jane Foster, the character best-known as Thor’s mortal girlfriend in the film series, controls the hammer (and the power) of Thor. But Foster has cancer, and the transformation into Thor is making her condition even worse. The script by Jason Aaron manages to skillfully combine exposition with fantastic elements — most notably, a rain of dead elf bodies in outer space. And Russell Dauterman’s artwork is fantastic; he renders both the realism of a chemotherapy infusion room and the fantasy of a space senate featuring trolls, elves, and creatures made entirely out of fire. The issue ends on a lazy superhero comics cliché —a splash page revealing a mystery villain, the same technique that Aaron used in last week’s debut issue of The Goddamned — but it’s otherwise a wonderful introduction to an interesting new take on a character that had grown stale.

The first issue of Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez’s Spider-Woman is, like Thor, beautifully illustrated. Rodriguez’s art favors clarity above all else; his lines are slick and expressive, and he’s at his best when he densely populates a page, especially in one scene featuring a few dozen superheroes hanging out at a rooftop party to celebrate Spider-Woman’s maternity leave. Sometime between the end of the last Spider-Woman series (which ended a few weeks ago but which in comics time took place eight months ago) and this issue, Spider-Woman became pregnant. Who’s the father? Nobody’s telling. (This is a gimmick DC Comics used a few years ago with Catwoman, too.) As a first issue, the story fails to explain an awful lot: why, in a world full of superheroes, is Spider-Woman training someone to replace her while she’s out on maternity leave? Why is reporter Ben Urich helping her? What’s Spider-Woman's mission, really? If you let those questionable motivations slide and just go along for the ride, you’ll have plenty of fun with pages packed with aliens and guest-stars and a book that considers the consequences of being a superhero while pregnant.

The first issue of Ms. Marvel similarly takes place eight months after last month’s concluding issue, although it very clearly picks up where the last issue took off: our hero, Kamala Khan, is at peace with being a superhero, and she’s trying to balance her heroic endeavors with life as a teenager. Seattle author G. Willow Wilson finds a nice balance here between the personal dramas, the superhero weirdness (a giant frog figures into the story), and using superhero broadness to tackle nuanced topics. In this issue, Ms. Marvel does battle with gentrification and jealousy. Most of the issue is illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa, whose cartoonish, manga-influenced style is competent, if a little too cute. Series regular artist Adrian Alphona takes over for the last nine pages, and he demonstrates exactly why he’s the perfect artist for Ms. Marvel; he renders Kamala with a relaxed awkwardness that Miyazawa never quite delivers; Miyazawa draws adolescence the way we want it to be, while Alphona draws adolescence as it really is.

If you follow superhero comics, all three of these issues are worth your time. Perhaps most importantly, they’re not just comics about superheroes that have been gender-swapped; they’re comics about women with superhuman abilities, which presents a different palette than the standard male-oriented superhero comics. But while Marvel should be commended for producing so many new series starring female characters, the mastheads on these books identify that Marvel has not done as well with gender parity behind the scenes. Of the three writers and four artists on these issues, only one — Wilson — is a woman. Representation on the page is so important, but the comics industry has a long way to go before the creators are as diverse as the heroes they’re paid to create.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The preacher's curse

The nerd internet got very excited a few weeks ago when the first trailer for the Preacher TV series was posted to YouTube. The trailer, to me, looked like a lot of hand-waving with very little substance, but then I’ve got conflicted feelings about Preacher. When I was a teenager, it was my favorite comic, a huge epic story — let’s be honest, a superhero story — about good and evil and, most importantly, sacrilege.

I haven’t read Preacher in years, in part because I fear it has probably aged very badly. Even though it launched in the mid-90s, Preacher likely now reads like something from a long-ago era, since it's packed with gay panic jokes and sexism. Those were never the appeal for me; I was there for the fun of a comic which casts the Christian depiction of God as the villain. For a lifelong atheist, it was a real thrill. Maybe Preacher’s transgressive nature meant that it would never age well. It’s impossible, after all, to be permanently transgressive; if you seek to offend, shifting cultural norms mean that you will most likely not be able to offend the next generation — at least in the way you originally intended.

Preacher is on my mind not just because of the trailer but because the first issue of The Goddamned, the new series by writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guéra, was published yesterday. The Goddamned purports to tell Bible stories as you’ve never seen them before, which, so far as I can tell by the debut issue, means with a lot more cuss words and violence.

The book begins “1600 years after Eden,” with a nameless figure waking up after being brutally assaulted. He then wanders the desert, completely naked, in search of the people — or, in this case, the giants — who beat him up. Captions deliver his narration to us: “I have walked this pile of shit we call a world for 1600 years. I have cursed God every way he can be cursed, including to his face.”

We eventually do discover our protagonist’s name, and it reveals him as a famous Biblical figure. At the end of the book, we’re introduced to an antagonist who also is a Biblical figure. The pacing, with the villain identifying himself on the very last page, is very much of a superhero comic, but The Goddamned seems desperate to label itself for mature readers. It’s got bad language and nudity and violence and, I guess, “adult subject matter.”

The Goddamned didn’t work for me, in part because I felt as though its edgy Bible riff might age as poorly as Preacher has. How many different ways can comics writers ostentatiously raise their middle fingers to the heavens? The first issue of The Goddamned is all attitude and posing, with no real sign that there’s anything substantial happening in the background. Maybe future issues will pay out in surprising ways. That’s entirely possible; Aaron certainly has the capacity to tell a good story.

If there’s a reason to pick up The Goddamned, it’s Guéra’s art. This is the kind of hyperdetailed style that Americans used to describe, with a certain kind of longing, as “European.” A double-page spread of the marauding giant hordes is so full of debauchery and sin that it’s like a Where’s Waldo of monstrosity. During the eight-page, mostly silent fight scene in the middle of the book, (another reminder of superhero comics) Guéra ilustrates violent acts with economy and gravity; you can always tell what’s going on in every panel, and he doesn’t allow the action to overwhelm the page. He keeps the panel count high, rather than blowing the fight scene out into a too-extravagant series of splash pages. His art, it must be said, is almost too good for the comic in which it appears.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The weird dawn light of Paper Girls

We're in a golden age of Brian K. Vaughan comics. I can't shut up about how good Saga is; he recently wrapped up The Private Eye, a beautiful sci-fi comic with Marcos Martin; his Canadian future war comic We Stand On Guard keeps getting better; and his newest series, the retro sci-fi adventure comic Paper Girls, is probably his best non-Saga comics work yet. Co-created with artist Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls tells the story of a group of newspaper delivery girls in 1988. One day, they encounter some monsters. The audience is introduced to an object that suggests time travel might be involved. The second issue, released yesterday, adds to the mystery by tossing in some more monsters and a very confused adult.

Paper Girls is reminiscent of the J.J. Abrams movie Super 8 in that it's a genre story that's soaked in nostalgia for 1980s childhoods. But while Super 8 collapsed under its own weird self-regard — did the world really need a Spielberg homage produced by Stephen Spielberg? — Paper Girls hums along by keeping the postmodern winks to a minimum. Sure, the characters argue about pop culture; when one character calls Peggy Sue Got Married a sci-fi movie, another delivery girl can't resist a little fannish pedantry: "That's actually more of a fantasy time travel story," she says. But this meta-commentary feels appropriate for the story and not at all forced.

Fresh off a career-making turn on Wonder Woman, Chiang proves to be exceptionally suited for a comic like Paper Girls. The girls are realistic teenagers (hooray for a complete lack of creepy objectification!) and the monsters are happily comic-booky. Chiang's genius, though, is that these disparate elements somehow obviously exist in the same universe; they each have equal weight. From the mundanity of an abandoned Big Wheel on a street corner to the bizarre vision of a werewolf in a Guns N Roses t-shirt stagering around, Chiang keeps everything tight and consistent.

Paper Girls also stands as a representative example of what good coloring can do for a comic. Matt Wilson uses an 80s-appropriate neon palette for the covers and special effects, but most of the book takes place at an eerie moment of dawn — or is it dusk? — when the sky is a washed-out rainbow of deep purples and royal pinks. Anyone who has ever run a paper route remembers the eerieness of waking up at pre-dawn when the whole world is asleep; Wilson captures the glow of that moment on paper and makes it real.

It's unclear at this point exactly where Paper Girls is going, though it's obvious that Vaughan has a plan in mind. It could become a full-on creature feature, or it might be a twisty time-travel story, or it might be a tribute to the friendship between girls. Knowing Vaughan, it'll likely be some combination of all three. Whatever happens, I'm entirely onboard; Paper Girls has rocketed to the top of my list of must-read books.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Mona Lisa, smile

The first issue of Art Ops, a new comic by Shaun Simon and Mike Allred, contains one indelible image: Mona Lisa, shopping in a contemporary grocery store. She’s wearing a bright yellow hoodie, and she’s buying cans of soup — Campbell’s soup, of course, an obvious shout-out to Andy Warhol, who has a cameo elsewhere in the issue. The young man running the checkout counter screws up the nerves to ask her out: “So, Lisa, I was wondering if you…if you wanted to catch a movie or something.” Mona Lisa responds, of course, with a mysterious little smile, and before she can say anything in response, something weird interrupts the moment.

Art Ops begins with a premise that seems charming enough, if a little bit limited: a special team of operatives have the power to literally bring art to life. They pull the Mona Lisa from her frame because some mysterious, malevolent force is coming for her, and they put her into a kind of Art Witness Protection Program. Elsewhere in the issue, graffiti walks off the walls and attacks a few New Yorkers. Banksy even makes a(n off-panel) appearance. It’s a good high concept, but how many famous paintings can you screw around with before the idea loses its thrill?

Luckily, there’s a whole lot more going on in Art Ops. It feels as though Simon and Allred have constructed many layers to the world, adding a bruised family dynamic and a wide cast of characters. It’s basically a superhero story — one character’s right arm is made out of art, another character wears a black jumpsuit and flies around — but the narrative hints at a moral complexity that’s lurking off to the edges of the story.

Mike Allred is the best character designer in mainstream comics today. Each player in Art Ops has their own look and feel, and his pop realism is perfect for incorporating all the little art history jokes into the background throughout the issue. Allred’s Jack Kirbyesque energy is perfect for a premise like this: he doesn’t get too wrapped up in emulating, say, Da Vinci’s rendering. Instead, he gives us Allred’s version of Mona Lisa and Allred’s cover of Lichtenstein. This is less about mimicking and more about interpretation; only an artist with Allred’s confidence could pull that trick off.

We don’t learn what the antagonists of Art Ops are up to in this first issue; in fact, we don’t even see who the antagonists of Art Ops are. The protagonist is a little bit of a dick, and the story does rely on that oldest motivational trope, the death of a girlfriend, to get the action going. But it’s a lively, ambitious, layered first issue that hints at a bigger payoff in issues ahead. I’ve read a lot of bad first issues lately; Art Ops is the first one I’ve come across in a few weeks that suggests the journey will be worth the investment.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Ants and giants win a miserable week

Maybe I was just in a bad mood or something, but I didn't find much enjoyment in the comics I bought yesterday. The new issue of Godzilla in Hell is a total bust — a real downer of a serious, clunky monster comic after last issue’s greatness. The 28th issue of Astro City continues a depressing trend with that series; what began as commentary on superheroes has basically become a boring superhero anthology comic. Warren Ellis’s first issue of Karnak feels like the same mainstream Warren Ellis we’ve seen a million times before: some edgy torture and a few lines of absurd, self-aware dialogue. The art by Gerardo Zaffino looks pretty cool at first, until some action happens and you realize you can’t tell what the hell is going on. (If you can explain what Karnak does to the bullet that’s fired at him in a scene late in the book, I’d love to hear it. All Zaffino drew was a blurry finger and some speed lines. I have no idea what was supposed to have happened there.)

It wasn’t all terrible. I enjoyed the first issue of The Astonishing Ant-Man by Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas. Spencer is writing the most fun mainstream superhero comics in the business right now, and his word-heavy comics are a delight. It takes time to read an issue of a Spencer comic, as opposed to the breezy “widescreen” approach that Ellis has been taking for a while now. But I’m a little annoyed to be getting another first issue of a comic that launched with a first issue in January of this year. I suppose this relaunch technique is supposed to attract new readers, but it just feels like the story lurched into a bad gear for a moment before correcting itself. It's an unwelcome stutter in an otherwise very funny, very big-hearted comic.

Luckily, my week was saved by the seventh issue of John Allison and Max Sarin’s Giant Days. Every issue of this comic, about three young women becoming fast friends at college, is better than the one before. You don’t have to have read the rest of the series to understand what’s going on in this issue: Esther took a class on the New Testament as a joke, but now she’s in danger of failing; Susan has engaged in a torrid, secret love affair that finds her buying condoms three boxes at a time; and Daisy is busy worrying about everyone else all the time. Allison’s script is simple and funny and character-based. Sarin’s art is cartoony and expressionistic. It’s the most enjoyable comic of the week, and the only clear-cut win in a week full of disappointments. All the bluster and sameness of the new books this week felt like silly kids' stuff when compared to this humor comic about life in college. It's sure to be a high point in your week, too.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The end of Ms. Marvel

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

The world ends in superhero comics all the time. DC Comics published a company-wide crossover called Final Night almost twenty years ago in which superheroes and their supporting casts believed their worlds were about to end for real (no, for really real this time). This summer, Marvel Comics did basically the same thing as part of their big crossover, Secret Wars. They published “last issues” of their comics under the banner “Last Days Of…” with the premise that the world is about to end for real (no, for really real this time) and so their characters are forced to come to peace with the idea that they are powerless to stop the destruction of the universe. Like most of the Secret Wars crossover, the idea started strong but has gone on for way too long.

But this week, Marvel published the final issue of Last Days of Ms. Marvel, written by local author G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona, and it’s maybe the best single comic that Wilson has written yet. This is really saying something, considering that Ms. Marvel has been thoroughly delightful for every single one of its 19 issues. From the very first issue, Wilson and Alphona managed to capture that early Marvel superhero formula — the story of a quirky, flawed hero, as told by a writer with a strong voice and an artist with a fun, poppy style — and transplant it, seemingly effortlessly, into the 21st century.

Ms. Marvel has always been a dance between outrageous superhero adventure and the soap-operatic story of Kamala Khan, a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim growing up in Jersey City. The standard superhero tropes are all at play — can Khan keep her superhero life a secret from her hyper-conservative parents? — but Wilson’s low-key script and Alphona’s cartoony art kept the stakes at a happily human scale. Marvel Comics hasn’t debuted a superhero this promising in decades.

But that’s all old news. Yesterday, Marvel “ended” the series, and Wilson and Alphona took the opportunity to write a real, honest-to-goodness last issue for Ms. Marvel. As good as the series has been, this last issue is even better. Though she knows the world is ending, Khan doesn’t turn into Ms.Marvel,or use her shape-shifting powers even once in the issue. Instead, she has heartfelt conversations with her mother, with a friends, with other members of her supporting cast. These conversations, all of which take place in or around a high school in which residents of Khan’s Jersey City neighborhood are taking shelter from the apocalypse, are alternately touching, awkward, and earnest.

Relying as it does on dialogue crammed into a series of tiny bubbles, it’s surprising that this issue works as well as it does. Wilson is gifted at the haiku of comics scripting — seriously, count the number of words in a given comics issue and you’ll have a better appreciation of how hard it is to write dialogue for the medium — and Alphona does the rest of the work with his characters’ emotive faces and expressive body language. They’ve grown as a team over the two years that they’ve worked on the book, and this issue is the payoff for all that hard work. Rather than going out with a silly fight or existential angst, Ms. Marvel instead faces the end of the world as a human being.

Look, we all know it’s comics, and that Ms. Marvel is a popular book, and that nobody’s going to disappear forever. But the trick that Wilson and Alphona pull off in this issue is they take an overplayed gimmick and they use it as an opportunity to allow the characters to speak their minds and open their hearts and demonstrate how they’ve changed since we’ve first met them. This is a hell of an accomplishment: it’s an ending that leaves you desperate to read the next chapter.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Refreshing and cool

I couldn't make it to the comic book store last night because I was too busy celebrating at the launch party for California Four O'Clock, the debut novel from Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan. It was a big new comics Wednesday to miss; a ton of Marvel Comics relaunched yesterday with all-new first issues and status quos, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. Of those three, the only one that I'm at all interested in is Doctor Strange; writer Jason Aaron is often pretty good, and artist Chris Bachalo's noodly illustrations seem perfect for the baroqueness of the character as created by Steve Ditko. Spider-Man has been devalued in recent years by too many iterations of the same character — Marvel Comics will soon be publishing a ongoing comic book starring Spider-Men (and -Women) from across multiple dimensions, watering the brand down even further — and Iron Man is now written by Brian Michael Bendis, who has stretched himself way too thin in recent years.

And frankly, I'm finding it hard to believe that any of these relaunches are going to be as exciting as the Archie relaunch. I've already written about the first issue of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples's reimainging of Archie Andrews and his Riverdale gang. The third issue of the book is out, and it unbelievably keeps getting better as it goes along.

The third issue of Archie reintroduces the relationships between these characters in new and interesting ways, twisting the love triangle inside out. Archie is following new-to-town rich girl Veronica Lodge around like a hungry puppy, Jughead is trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and Betty is upset about the mysterious event that led to her breakup with Archie. It's packed with interesting characterization. Jughead is portrayed as ridiculously wise, with a keen sense of focus that grants him almost mystical properties. Veronica demonstrates great vulnerability at just the moment when we expect her to become a super-villain. Betty is so profoundly decent that the reader can't help but land on her side. Only Archie lacks a distinctive personality here; he may be the front man of this particular band, but he's doomed to only react to things happening around him. He's such a straight man you could use him as a ruler in a pinch.

The biggest potential problem with this version of Archie is that Fiona Staples has not signed on as an artist for the long haul. This is a visually dynamic comic that rewards re-reading. The characters' body language is vivacious and evocative. The fashions are fun — clothing hangs on bodies realistically — and the big, moony eyes of our main characters seem full of aspiration and disappointment and, you know, life. In three short issues, Archie has transformed from a smart retooling of an ancient brand into the best high-school comic on the stands today. Marvel Comics should be taking notes: this is how you refresh an old idea.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Godzilla goes to hell

Most licensed comics, let’s be honest, are terrible. Comics as merchandising spin-offs are usually afterthoughts, completely irrelevant to the movie or TV show that spawned them. Nothing happens in licensed comics, and somehow the approval of a fleet of corporate lawyers makes the officially licensed spin-offs feel even more like bad fan-fiction. They’re safe and boring and bland.

But every so often you’ll encounter the proverbial exception that proves the rule. And sometimes that exception is titled Godzilla in Hell. IDW’s miniseries is exactly that: a miniseries about Godzilla in hell. Each issue is written and drawn by a different artist, with the flimsy insinuation that Godzilla is descending through the various circles of the underworld providing the barest of narrative threads between installments. Luckily, these comics are so fun and so unrepentantly weird that they don’t need a narrative.

The first issue of Godzilla in Hell, illustrated by rising indie star James Stokoe, was so simplistic that it was almost too slight. In a wordless comic, Godzilla fell into Hell and then fought his way around. Only Stokoe’s noodly, effervescent art kept the issue from being a pantomime bore; you could stare at the whorls of fire and brimstone that Stokoe layered into the back of every panel for hours. The second issue, by Bob Eggleton, was a bit more traditional for a Godzilla comic: giant monster fights overlaid with some overwrought narration.

The third issue of Godzilla in Hell, written by Ulises Farinas and Erick Frietas with art by Buster Moody, is a nice blend of the two issues that came before. Godzilla wanders around hell and fights Space Godzilla, but he also encounters a hive of angel-Mothra hybrids that try to trick him to do their bidding. Christian imagery is everywhere — at one point, Space Godzilla shatters a hellish replica of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue with a force bolt — and then Godzilla stares at a giant purple mountain made out of angry eyes that tries to hypnotize the giant lizard. “SUBMIT, SERVE PEACE SUBMIT, SERVE PEACE SUBMIT, SERVE PEACE” the eyes chant at Godzilla, whose scowl gives away the fact that he’s not having any of it.

Godzilla in Hell is one of those batshit ideas that offers no clue as to how it came to be. Was it really just as simple as someone watching a creature feature and thinking, “I wonder what would happen if Godzilla starred in Dante’s Inferno?” Because if so, that person deserves a medal. So far, Godzilla has not squared off against Satan himself. If the series ends without that showdown, I will be very disappointed. And if the quality holds up, I’m hoping for some sequels. Godzilla in Heaven, perhaps? Godzilla Vs. God? Godzilla starring in Paradise Lost? Why not? The lawyers don’t seem to be watching, so we might as well have some fun.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Nameless finally gets off to a strong start

Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s comic Nameless is on its fifth issue this week, but it wasn’t until this issue that the premise of the series really hit home for me: it’s Armageddon, only the asteroid is haunted. That’s about as high concept as you can get, and if Morrison is nothing else, he’s fundamentally skilled at high concept.

It’s a pity that Nameless didn’t start off very well. The story opened in media res, with a nameless dabbler in the supernatural — well, to be specific, his name is Nameless — being recruited to fend off the asteroid Xibalba. The quick start perhaps wouldn’t have been as big of a problem if Morrison weren’t in his hyper-frustrating opaque mode, refusing to offer much by way of explanation for anything on the page. (Everyone knows too much exposition is a bad thing, especially in comics, but sometimes Morrison’s scripts practically throb for more explanation.)

But over the next four issues, as Morrison’s intent became more and more clear, Nameless became more and more interesting. The threat evolved into something imposing, the blending of astronauts and mysticism was explored in a little more depth, and the reader was granted enough understanding to care why everyone was doing what they were doing. This is a monthly comic that will improve drastically when it is all bound between two covers in trade paperback form.

One aspect of Nameless that is beyond complaint is Chris Burnham’s art. Burnham is one of those hyper-detailed cartoonists like Geoff Darrow or Frank Quitely, the sort of artist who can draw a complex facial expression in just a few feathery lines but then spends seemingly weeks fastidiously rendering every single water spot on the chrome of the kitchen sink in the background of the panel. That blend of cartoonishness and realism works especially well for a horror series; the familiarity of a simplistic cartoon face lulls the reader into complacency, even as a monstrous betentacled demon blossoms open behind the face, with every single vein in the creature’s eye fastidiously rendered. On a visceral level, this screams something-is-wrong into the reader’s face. It’s intrinsically unsettling.

Nathan Fairbairn’s coloring, too, is exceptional. He aspires to realism in some of the scenes — a few pages in issue 5, when a group of people wander into a spooky mansion, are glowing with gentle candlelight and the warmth of burnished wood — but then a few pages later he unleashes a full-page gaudy psychedelic tableau on the reader, an explosion of turquoise and lavender and vivid, toxic red.

Nameless issue 5 is where the whole series comes together. It tells more of Nameless’s story, explaining why he was in such dire straits at the start of issue number 1. On reading this issue, with its gore and melodrama and Lovecraftian pastiche, I was left wondering why Morrison didn’t start the series off here. With a concept like this, Morrison could’ve afforded to take his time and develop the threat a little more cautiously, starting as a “normal” paranormal comic and then building to the mystic astronaut angle. Perhaps when the miniseries is done and we can see the full canvas of Morrison’s story, this decision will make sense, but for now it reeks of a squandered opportunity.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Hey, kids! Head Lopper!

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

In nerd vernacular, the phrase “Hey, kids! Comics!” has taken on a couple of disparate meanings. It originated as a sign on the top of drugstore comics spinner racks (some iterations of the sign were paired with another sign that read “Wholesome entertaining comics”). The phrase has an earnestness to it that’s highly appealing, but it also smacks of a kind of charming hucksterism, not unlike the persona that Stan Lee would develop in early Marvel Comics letters pages.

Over time, though, the phrase has taken on a distinctly ironic flavoring. You’ll now most frequently find the phrase “Hey kids! Comics!” in comments sections, where fans will use it to mock too-gory or overly serious superhero comics. The first time I started seeing it with any frequency was around the time that writer Geoff Johns rose to ascendancy at DC Comics. Johns had a tendency to write comics in which B-list superheroes had their limbs torn off by villains, which annoyed people who liked to read comics to forget about things like violent dismemberment.

But the whole time I was reading the first issue of Andrew MacLean’s new self-described “Quarterly Adventure Comic” Head Lopper, the phrase “Hey, kids! Comics!” kept reverberating around my head like a pop song. Not in a bad way, mind you. The truth is, Head Lopper is the kind of comic that reminds me why I fell in love with comics in the first place. The action is too ridiculous for any movie CGI to convincingly capture and the premise is so cartoonishly simple — in ancient times, a large man with a sword travels around lopping heads off of people and creatures in exchange for money — that it allows a whole lot of artfulness to sneak in around the edges.

Here’s the story: Head Lopper (who is also known alternately as “Son of the Minotaur” or “The Executioner” or, as he prefers to be called, “Norgal”) has just lopped the head off a monstrous leviathan. Now he’s trying to collect payment for the deed. He’s double-crossed, of course, and so then he heads out in search of vengeance. Oh, and for some reason he has to carry around a severed witch’s head that won’t stop talking. (She shouts at Head Lopper early on, “Check your squinty eyes, oaf! I see, I hear, by Alba, I move!”) Head Lopper is a man of few words, a gigantic overstuffed couch of a barbarian, and so sometimes his tolerance for chit-chat flags.

Really, that’s about it. Head Lopper is just a story about a man who does a very specialized task — again, if you forgot already, he lops the heads off of his enemies — and happens to be very good at it. It’s a fantasy comic in much the same way that, say, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is a fantasy comic. Head Lopper is not so much interested in deep Tolkien-ish world-building as it is in fun artistic challenges.

Most artists doing mainstream superhero comics should study these fight scenes; MacLean’s simplistic animation-style drawing is wonderfully fluid, and so a scene in which, say, Head Lopper fights a giant wolf, is easy to follow and it conveys a lot of information in an economical fashion. You can follow every step and slash that Head Lopper makes with his giant sword as he hops around the wolf’s enormous body, leaving strategic slices in his wake.

Many pages of Head Lopper pass by without dialogue, but MacLean crams his panels full of so much detail — the masonry of a child-king’s throne room, a stack of firewood piled up next to the front door of a home — that you can’t just mindlessly flip through the comic. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this silly story about a man who wanders around and fights monsters.

In the back pages of Head Lopper, MacLean explains why the book is coming out in huge hunks of fifty or sixty pages on a quarterly basis:

Here’s what I want in every issue of Head Lopper: long fights, dark jokes, creepy atmosphere, short plots and long plots, and comfortable conclusions that, hopefully, still leave you wanting more. The standard comic length would make me cut something short.

I agree; I wish more artists would experiment with this format. Head Lopper feels less like a brief installment in a larger story and more like a short novella that dips into a pre-existing fantasy world. It’s substantial and experimental and fun. In other words: Hey, kids! Comics!

Thursday Comics Hangover: The fantastic voyage from Saga to Bitch Planet

Every comics fan knows Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.

The new collected volume of Saga, volume five, hit the stands yesterday. I haven't read it yet, but I've already said on multiple occasions that Saga is the best mainstream ongoing comic in the business today, and I don't think volume 5 is going to damage my opinion. (The weird thing about reading collected volumes of monthly comics is that you're likely to hear well in advance if an upcoming volume is going to be especially disappointing.) Phoenix Comics keeps upping their orders of Saga, in both the monthly and the collected editions. They got almost a hundred copies of volume 5 yesterday, and they've already sold a significant portion of their order. The book keeps picking up more and more fans with each passing month; it's deep into "phenomenon" territory now.

The comics industry is always wringing its collective hands, trying to figure out how to get more people to read comics. We're at a point where many of the top ten most successful movies of any given year are superhero films, but Marvel and DC can't seem to turn those movie superhero fans into comic book fans. The Walking Dead comics series sells well, but most comics store employees say that Walking Dead fans tend to stick with the Walking Dead comics. They don't venture into other titles.

This isn't the case, I've been told, with Saga. Turns out, Saga readers also read Sex Criminals and Wicked and the Divine. They branch out and try new comics. Why is that? Damned if I know. Maybe part of it is because Saga is such an expansive comic; it feels like a story that's always opening up to embrace new possibilities, which perhaps encourages readers, in turn, to embrace their own new possibilities. Or maybe that's some mystical hoo-ha BS and there's no good explanation.

In any case, yesterday also saw the release of the fifth issue of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's Bitch Planet, and, goddamnit, Saga fans had better be picking this series up. Bitch Planet takes a simple premise — a women's prison in space — and simultaneously embraces and refutes all the expectations that come along with the premise. Part of the pleasure of Bitch Planet is that it wallows in about nine pulp traditions at once: it's a crime comic and a prison comic and a sci-fi comic and a woman-on-the-edge comic and more, all blended into one dreamy package. Hell, this issue is a sports comic and I still liked it — speaking as the most sports-phobic person in the world, that's really saying something. And this issue has got a great guest essay by Lindy West in the back. What's not to love? The first collected edition of Bitch Planet arrives in early October; when that happens, you have no excuse for missing out.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Raise the Minimum Wage

Every comics fan knows Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.

Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage comics, published by Fantagraphics, were most definitely products of the 1990s. The main character, Rob, dressed in 90s bike messenger chic — mostly black clothing, a wallet chain, chunky boots, some chin hair, a propensity to wear shorts a little too often. He’d blend right in at a Fugazi concert. And though he seemed to consider himself to be an open-minded modern man, Rob’s relationship toward women — especially his girlfriend, Sylvia — was most definitely of the 1990s, too. This was back in the days when Camille Paglia was briefly the world’s most famous feminist, when feminism meant talking openly about the kind of porn you were into, and women were still encouraged to find empowerment by “controlling” the male gaze.

The Minimum Wage of the 90s is the semi-autobiographical story of two young people in love. Rob is a young and horny cartoonist, and he’s sure Sylvia is the perfect woman for him because she likes (or at least tolerates) his nerdy comics talk and she’s nearly as sexually voracious as he is. The couple demonstrates real affection for each other, but as they become more and more committed as the series carries on, they seem to grow further and further apart.

Last year, Fingerman revived Minimum Wage at Image Comics — he also collected the entire original series in an oversized hardcover titled Maximum Minimum Wage — and the new title is very clearly a sequel to the original work. Rob and Sylvia have divorced, and it was apparently a very ugly split; Sylvia only appears in the first revived series as a featured character in Rob’s frequent nightmares. Rob is trying to enjoy being single again, but none of the relationships he seeks out are right for him. He’s enjoying commercial and artistic success, drawing both corporate and semi-autobiographical comics to mostly positive reviews, but he’s also squirming in his skin; nothing turned out as he wanted, and he’s uncomfortable with how uncomfortable that makes him.

Fingerman smartly doesn’t pick the new Minimum Wage up where the old series left off. He’s not afraid to let time have its way with his art. This is most obvious in Fingerman’s illustration, which in the first series was rounded and clean and almost Disneyesque in its voluptuousness. The lines of the new Minimum Wage are noodlier, scratchy, and in some ways uglier. Fingerman still packs tons of rewarding detail into every panel (background characters in restaurant scenes have their own distinct body language, even if they only show up for three panels before disappearing from the book forever) but he’s less prone to care about how realistic things are. (The spray of hair on top of Rob’s head used to be a little Charlie Brown-style curlicue, but in the new series it’s a roosterlike geyser rocketing up from the top of his skull, nearly adding another foot to his height.) The art has become more mature, more concerned with what truly matters, rather than what looks impressive.

Too bad Rob hasn’t grown with Fingerman’s art. Rob’s story in the new Minimum Wage seems to follow one pattern played out over and over again: Rob gets something he wants — a beautiful woman who loves sex as much as he does, an artistic gig that’s fulfilling — and then spends page after page feeling bad about himself. In the latest issue of the comic, #5, Rob wonders to himself, “am I a creep?” It’s probably the closest he’s come to a moment of true self-awareness since we were reintroduced to him last year.

The thing is, in this new Minimum Wage series, we really miss Sylvia. Though the comic has always come from Rob’s perspective, spending this much time in Rob’s head without another regular character to pull him out of his interiority reveals exactly how unpleasant a character he can be. That’s kind of the point; the life of a young freshly divorced man isn’t likely to be a happy one. But it’s hard to imagine new readers clambering on board Minimum Wage at this late date and finding a whole lot to identify with in Rob. This is a comic about alienation, and reading it can be an alienating experience. That’s part of the design; Fingerman knows exactly what kind of a story he’s telling.

Or aspiring to tell, as the case may be: Yesterday, Fingerman told Bleeding Cool in an interview that he has one more series in mind for Minimum Wage, but that sales on the comic don’t justify the continuation of the series. He’d like to complete Rob’s story in either serialized comics or in the form of an original trade paperback, but he might not be able to conclude the comic at all.

That would be a shame; imagine if Woody Allen lost funding for Annie Hall three-quarters of the way through production. Minimum Wage can be a frustrating comic, and the first half of the story now feels like an exercise in 90s nostalgia. But no other comic I can think of is documenting this kind of a quiet life in flux, and very few other cartoonists are putting as much work into every page on a monthly basis. Minimum Wage is worth preserving.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Strong women everywhere

Every comics fan knows Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.

(Before we get started with the column this week, I just heard about this neat thing and I want to share it with you: The Ladies Comic Book Club, which is a comics book club for women, will be having their third meeting at Phoenix Comics tonight. They’ll be discussing the first two paperbacks of the rock-and-roll-and-magic series The Wicked and the Divine. If you’re a woman and you read comics, you should maybe join this Facebook group, because it’s a super-cool idea and I’m glad someone is doing it. Anyway. On with the show.)

This was a really wonderful week for new comics. Yesterday, I picked up second issues of the incredibly good anthology comic Island, the new Archie series from Fiona Staples and Mark Waid, and Ales Kot and Matt Taylor’s Wolf, as well as a new issue of Stray Bullets and the halfway point of the 12-issue limited series Giant Days, a vastly under-appreciated comic about young women in college.

When Giant Days comes out in a trade paperback collecting the series, I want you to promise me you’ll check it out. No comic book I’ve read this year — not even Lumberjanes, which I’ve enjoyed a great deal — has been so packed full of vibrant characterization. The friendships in this book feel real and complicated and fun. I’ve read a lot of autobiographical comics, but Giant Days in some ways feels just as honest as the best of them.

But I also finally got my hands on a copy of Bloody Pussy, a locally produced self-described “feminist rag,” and even on this standout of a week, it’s a standout. We’ll hopefully be running an in-depth review soon, but briefly: Pussy is a free one-shot tabloid newspaper packed with 12 single-page comics about women’s sexuality and bodily fluids and other topics that are usually labeled too unpleasant for polite conversation.

This is not a paper that wants to win you over; it wants to talk frankly about placentas and assholes and eye-gouging and Don Draper and other important things. It feels like the kind of spontaneous in-your-face creative endeavor that you imagine used to appear on the streets of Seattle all the time back in the Riot Grrrl days. Unless you’re an easily offended doofus, you should go track down a copy of Bloody Pussy immediately. This is the kind of brash artistic statement that will take on the stuff of legend in Northwest cartooning.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Skin deep

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

First issues of comic series are tough. You have to establish a premise, introduce readers to at least one character to care about, and then give the readers a good reason to come back for the second issue. It’s like trying to run in place on a rolling log — one misstep and you’re pudding. You might have an incredible idea for a comic series, but if your first issue isn’t compelling it’s very unlikely that your story will ever find the audience it deserves. It’s not fair — imagine the pressure novelists would feel if browsers could lease a novel’s first chapter, with an option to buy the rest of the book — but fairness and the creation of art never get along very well.

You can probably tell from that introduction how I feel about The Beauty, the new comic series written by Jeremy Haun and illustrated by Jason A. Hurley. In theory, it’s a catchy little introduction to a sci-fi premise.The captions on the first page lay out the concept over shots of large groups of (mostly white) pedestrians walking by on a city street:

Two years ago, a new sexually transmitted disease took the world by storm. This S.T.D. was unlike any other that had come before. This was a disease that people actually wanted. “Victims” of this epidemic were physically changed by the virus. Fat melted away, thinning hair returned, skin blemishes faded, and their facial features slimmed. It became known as The Beauty.”

Okay. I mean, it’s certainly all right there. (I could do without the cliche “by storm” in the very first sentence of the book, but let’s be generous and ignore that for a moment.) The high concept has a bunch of obvious questions attached. Beauty is subjective, so why does everyone look like a model? And what about other races — are they held to a caucasian beauty standard, too? (The cast seems to be all-white, except for two minority background characters reduced to a couple lines each.) Obviously, you can’t touch on all these subjects in a couple dozen pages of comics, but there’s very little depth in the first issue of The Beauty to convince me that Haun and Hurley are intersted in pursuing the matter any further.

What we do get is a mystery: a beautiful woman on the subway explodes, seemingly by spontaneous combustion. Our apparent heroes, a pair of police investigators (a normal-looking man and a woman with The Beauty) set out to solve the case. It’s pretty generic policing action: a lead, a chase, shots fired, a little angst. There’s a twist at the end of the issue that you can see coming at least two pages ahead, along with some incredibly bad dialogue: “Forget about work. You’re here with me now, and that’s all that matters.”

That’s enough harping on the writing. Haun’s art is good. He varies the backgrounds, body language, and perspectives on every scene, though he seems to have a problem conveying shadow and darkness without spilling giant pools of ink everywhere. John Rauch’s coloring could use a little more pep; every room seems to be colored on a variation of the same hotel-like beige, and the city backgrounds on the first page are all colored the same weird blue-green.

Ultimately, there just isn’t enough on the page for me to recommend The Beauty. The story’s not curious enough to dig beyond the surface of its premise, instead offering standard scenes of Brian Michael Bendis-style cop chit-chat interspersed with a tiny amount of world-building. The concept is interesting enough to warrant reinvestigation if and when the first trade paperback collection of The Beauty is released, but nothing in this first issue inspires me to pick up the second. It’s a tough business, comics.

UPDATE 11:26 AM: On Twitter, Karen Meisner tipped us to the existence of Alice Sola Kim's 2009 short story "Beautiful Bodies," which examines a similar sort of beauty epidemic. You can read it over at Strange Horizons. If you're interested in the concepts behind The Beauty but you'd like to see them examined in more depth, this story is for you:

Once it struck, the girls became impossibly beautiful in the space of days. Even if you could pay some super-surgeon-sculptor-sage (a three-way cross between Dr. 90210, Michelangelo, and Maimonides) to crack open your face like a watermelon and chisel away at it until your bones were fine and symmetrical, you still wouldn't look like these girls. Their necks were too long. And the whites of their eyes? Much too white!

Thursday Comics Hangover: The Fantastic Four and the problem with adaptations

Usually, this column is about new comics I bought on Wednesday. But last night I went to a press screening for the Fantastic Four movie that opens tomorrow, and I want to talk about that for a bit instead. (If you're looking for a straight-up movie review, you can read my review at Prairie Dog.)

The first 102 issues of the Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee are basically the template for every adventure comic book that came after: big sci-fi ideas, big discoveries, comic relief, and personal drama. Not every issue is a classic — Tomazooma the Living Totem wasn't the huge character find of 1968 — but the whole run is quite impressive.

So since there's already a blueprint out there clearly explaining what the Fantastic Four should be, why is it so incredibly hard to make a Fantastic Four movie? Why has every Fantastic Four adaptation been a bust? (Some people like to insist that The Incredibles is a good Fantastic Four movie, but that's not quite right. The Incredibles gets the family dynamic right, but they're superheroes. The Fantastic Four are sci-fi adventurers. It's an important distinction to make, because it's an entirely different motivation.)

What we're talking about here is a problem of adaptation. Everyone knows adaptation is tough; you can't just take a comic and duplicate it onto a movie screen (though Zack Snyder certainly tried during the making of Watchmen.) It's almost a cliche at this point to suggest that what doesn't go into an adaptation is just as important as what does. But it's true.

The new Fantastic Four movie is outright terrible; it replaces the optimistic post-Kennedy vibe of the comics with a dour fear of being different. So why can filmmakers create wonderful, fairly faithful adaptations of Captain America and Batman, but nobody is able to toss the Fantastic Four up on a screen? It's not because of the corny name.

Maybe the answer has to do with the fact that the Fantastic Four is a family, and modern blockbusters don't have the patience to depict families beyond the typical Spielbergian fathers-and-sons-are-magical dross. Weirdly, the only time I ever see families depicted with any complexity during blockbuster season is in Pixar movies like Inside Out and the aforementioned The Incredibles; maybe nuanced portrayals of human beings is kid's stuff?

Or maybe the Fantastic Four would be better-recieved if they were on television. Special effects on a TV budget might be tough, but if you want to watch male and female characters interacting in a non-sexual way, you're much better off on TV than you are in a movie theater.

Maybe there's something else that I'm missing. Maybe the gee-whiz scientific appeal of early Fantastic Four comics has worn off through the years. But frankly, I don't think so. It's true that the widespread adoption of smartphones has changed the idea of what science fiction means, but a good Fantastic Four story should happily embrace new technology and offer bizarre new ways to surpass the technology we've already grown to rely upon.

Or maybe part of the problem is that the Fantastic Four, when you look deep down in their souls, are happy people? Any idiot can tell a story about a miserable superhero, but it takes a special kind of talent to tell an interesting story about good-natured, positive people. As sad as it sounds, miserable sells itself but happy, in the wrong hands, bores us to tears.

Rather than supporting yet another bad adaptation, I'd encourage you to track down the first 102 issues of the Fantastic Four and read them. Those stories might not resemble the world around you right now, but they sure do look like the world you'd like to see outside your window.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Kaijumax loses its balance

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

“We should not be tolerating rape in prison, and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture,” President Obama announced in a speech about criminal justice reform earlier this month, adding, “that is no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

He’s right, of course. In addition to being simultaneously cruel and facile, prison rape jokes are one of the last safe spaces for homophobia in popular comedy. And still, most comedies about prison or crime include at least one prison rape joke. What does it say about us as a society — especially a society with the largest prison population in global history — that we’re okay with this?

And what does all this have to do with comic books?

I’ve been reading and enjoying Zander Cannon’s new comic from Oni Press, Kaijumax, an ongoing series about giant, Godzilla-style monsters thrown into prison for trying to destroy cities. The “prison” is an idyllic island far from civilization, and the guards are Ultraman-like humans. The book demonstrates a bone-deep understanding of kaiju cliche and is packed with little in-jokes for people who’ve spent way too many hours of their lives watching adults in rubber lizard suits destroy cardboard cities.

Cannon is an excellent cartoonist, and the tone of Kaijumax is unlike anything you’ve ever read before, a smorgasbord of genre concepts condensed into one seriocomic serialized narrative. All the prison tropes are there — the guards taking kickbacks, the gangs preying on new arrivals — but the book feels almost too silly to take seriously. The kaiju are all adorably designed, with cartoony eyes and distinct personalities to suit their nuclear-enhanced mutations (one kaiju resembles a giant snail, another looks like a dodo with aggressive spikes growing out of his back).

But the kicker is that the kaiju all act recognizably human. These are monsters that worry about their families back home. They try to talk to the guards about life. They have regrets. The absurd premise smacks into the silly drawing style and the convincingly portrayed emotions, and the reader isn’t quite sure how to land at the end of each issue. It’s a pleasant kind of discombobulation.

But the latest issue of Kaijumax, issue #4, opens with a sequence that throws the story’s balance off-kilter. One of the kaiju, the buglike Electrogor, is bathing in a waterfall. Another kaiju, a lizard-looking monster with a scorpion tail named Zonn, approaches him and starts talking. Soon, Zonn is holding the struggling Electrogor down and piercing his carapace with his tail-stinger. The scene plays way too close to the reality of prison rape, and it flat-out ruins Cannon’s juggling act.

To Cannon’s credit, he doesn’t play the scene for laughs. And he shows the aftereffects of violence: Electrogor suffers from the violence for the rest of the issue. He’s delivered, crying and vomiting, to the island’s hospital where he tells the nurse, “T-terrible thing happened me.” This isn’t a Chris Tucker punchline tossed into the end of a buddy cop movie. But is it necessary?

In the letter column of this issue of Kaijumax, Cannon addresses the scene head-on. When a reader writes in to say that “the rape-ish jokes and pretend-[racial] slurs make me uncomfortable and I think there’s kind of a disconnect between the more cutesy art-style and pretty serious subject matter. Is this uncomfort [sic] and stylistic disconnect intentional or am I just too sensitive you think[?]”

Cannon replies,

I do intend there to be a bit of an uncomfortable edge to it. My hope is that it’s not too off-putting; I want the mismatch between the prison harshness and the monster-ridiculousness to be humorous, not mean-spirited. I acknowledge that I’m walking an edge with some of the call-outs to racism and sexual assault, but the book will always stay more or less in the PG realm; everything has a monster-movie equivalent. Hopefully the vague sense of unease it gives you now will be as bad as it gets. This issue is the one that I was (am?) worried about being slightly over-the-top in terms of what it was about, but I’m too close to it to know if it crosses the line. I don’t think so, since the nature of Electrogor’s assault is firmly in the monster-movie realm and veers very wide of what I expect would upset someone. All that being said, of course, not every comic is for everyone.

Clearly he’s put a lot of thought into this, but as a reader, I think Cannon is wrong; in this case, the scene plays out too closely to the kind of scenes we see on TV and in movies on a regular basis. By relying on the shorthand that entertainers have used for decades — the shower scene has played out hundreds of times in hundreds of ways — Cannon becomes a participant in a long and shameful tradition, even as he tries to transcend it.

Thursday comics hangover: Los Angeles is a magical place

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

I swear every month brings a new comic series about a paranormal investigator. It's one of the most overplayed ideas out there — a down-on-his-luck detective who bumps into demons or vampires or some other creature-of-the-week riff. The last iteration of the trope that I bought into was Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos's terrible series Revelations, which read like toothless John Constantine: Hellblazer comics. The paranormal investigator is the laziest way to present supernatural fiction, by giving us a jaded main character who explains everything to the reader. Why mess with this stuff if you're not going to try to instill a sense of wonder or horror or surprise in the reader?

The newest paranormal detective series to hit the stands is Wolf, written by Ales Kot and illustrated by Matt Taylor, and I'll be damned if it doesn't somehow crack the code for a successful supernatural PI. Maybe it's because this is an oversized first issue that has plenty of room to breathe, but Kot and Taylor have somehow made a paranormal detective story that actually feels like a detective story. This could be a Raymond Chandler novel, if Raymond Chandler wrote about real vampires instead of the emotional variety.

The first time we meet our hero, Antoine Wolfe, he's on fire. But he's not really in any hurry to put himself out. Instead, he wanders around the back roads of Los Angeles, singing a Robert Johnson song to himself. We learn that Wolfe may (or may not) be immortal. At least, he seems to think he is. Wolfe's Los Angeles is packed with vampires and corrupt businessmen looking to hush up a murder or two. Around every corner is a goon waiting to knock him out and throw him in the trunk of a car. And Wolfe, who is African-American, understands that while the supernatural is dangerous, he's just as likely to get killed by a racist asshole with an axe to grind. The world is a dangerous place for him on multiple levels.

Taylor's art helps to sell the story's sunbaked Lovecraftian noir by staying simple and realistic. The cars look like cars, the people behave like people — Wolfe punches like a man who took a boxing class, in direct defiance of most ridiculous comics combat styles — and colorist Lee Loughridge keeps everything soaked in nauseating tones of green, so even the most ordinary panels seem to leak out a menace that's swirling just beneath the ink and paper.

Kot seems to know what he's doing here as he lays out the rules of Wolf's magic. We see a surprising array of supernatural aspects in the course of one single issue, but all the different menaces seem to behave similarly; magic is something that visits you and never leaves. It haunts people, including Wolfe, plucking at their sanity like a novice playing with a harp. It's hard to tell who's an eccentric urban mage and who's another schizophrenic, dumped on the street by a system that stopped caring decades ago. In other words, it looks a lot like real life.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The possibility of an Island

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

Island

Serialized anthology comics are tough. They’re a pain to coordinate, for starters, and it’s hard to find an audience for a series of short, ongoing stories by a wide array of artists. I want to support anthology comics — Monkeysuit, a lively anthology back at the turn of the century was a particular favorite — but I have to admit that I often can’t be bothered when a new anthology starts up. Too much of an investment, too little return. For the most part, they disappear before they even really get started.

So I wasn’t planning to pick up the first issue of Island, the new anthology edited by Brandon Graham, but, hell, you try to ignore it. It’s a massive book for a monthly comic — over a hundred pages, squarebound, drawing in your eye the way light gets sucked into a black hole. The cover kneecapped me, with its intricate drawing of an island made up of many parts (a forest, a sci-fi spaceport tower, a temple, a sailing vessel straight out of Moby Dick moored to one side) and its moody blue-gray color palette. Nothing else on the stands looks like this. I had to have a copy because it was a beautiful object and sometimes it feels good to own a beautiful object. And even at $7.99, a dense, full-color comics anthology feels positively European, the kind of artistic endeavor you should want to support.

Like all anthologies, some of the stories in Island hit me harder than others. My favorite story was the one that opens the collection, “I.D.” by Emma Rios. A support group meets in a coffee shop. Rios tells her story in tightly cropped panels, claustrophic and tinted only in shades of red. Gradually, we see that the story is set in the future — people start discussing an interplanetary mining colony operation — and we learn that the support group is for people seeking body transplants. “My metabolism doesn’t allow me to be the man I want to be,” one character says, adding “I can’t stand being this weak anymore.” Just as the story starts picking up, something happens and then it’s To Be Continued time. It’s an excellent first chapter to a longer story, ending not on a shameless cliffhanger but at a point of change for the characters.

Comics author Kelly Sue DeConnick contributes a four-page prose essay about a friend who helped her become an author. “I was newly sober, which is a lot like walking around with no skin on,” DeConnick writes. The account is honest and raw and as earnest as DeConnick undoubtedly was, back in the days when she walked around everywhere carrying “a notebook and How to Write a Novel in 90 Days, the cover purposefully displayed."

Graham’s contribution is beautiful — just in terms of pure density, nobody draws a more rewarding comics page than Graham, with characters slouching around cityscapes packed with details and wordplay and corny jokes (on one street, a home is marked “Tori’s House,” with a tower down the street labeled as an “Observe a Tori.”) I’m not sure what, exactly, is going on in the story beyond a couple going to a restaurant that only serves whale, but I want to examine these pages, with their diagrams of cups of pudding and digressions about pornographic currency (“barely legal tender,” of course,) until a story makes itself obvious. With Graham’s work, the digging is the treasure.

The final story, a skateboarding (kinda) superhero adventure by an artist named Ludroe, is rougher than all the others — you get the sense that Ludroe is a graffiti artist who hasn’t quite adapted from Sharpies to a more nuanced tool — but it feels like an attempt to create an urban mythology. Maybe if someone tried to invent Marvel Comics in the New York City of today, it would look something like this.

So, yes. There’s no real connective tissue between these stories besides the fact that they appear between the same covers, and Brandon Graham decided to show them to you. Sure, the stories share some artistic flourishes — a European sensibility, a progressive vibrance — but they’re distinct works by distinct artists. Maybe that’s why Island works so well. It doesn’t try too hard to sell an aesthetic beyond pure cartooning ambition. In this case, that’s more than enough of a unifying theme to win my allegiance.