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Thursday Comics Hangover: The masterful banality of Beverly

If you were to ask me to nominate one cartoonist to create a comic book adaptation of a Todd Solondz film, I would, without a second thought, choose Nick Drnaso. Like Solondz's films, the world in Drnaso’s new collection Beverly is ugly and mundane; unattractive Americans live their boring lives in bland surroundings — cut-rate hotel rooms, tract housing. Drnaso draws his figures with simple lines, often at the middle distance. He rarely employs close-ups; his characters lack detail or much by the way of physical nuance. It’s a kind of bland suburban hell.

Put simply, Drnaso tells the stories of creeps. A young boy embarrasses himself in spectacular, sexual fashion on a family vacation. A lonely man gets a massage. A young woman reports a horrible crime that puts the community on edge, though the details start to fall apart on closer investigation. You wouldn’t want to spend any time with the people in Beverly. At best, they’re bumbling and a little bit slow. At worst, you’d move away from them if they tried to sit next to you on the bus.

And yet, Drnaso is a masterful storyteller. With great economy and supreme confidence, he constructs whole worlds — worlds of mundanity, filled in with rainbows of beige — and he populates them with people who don’t experience desires so much as vague fumbling in the general direction of happiness. The most innocuous protagonist is a mother who is excited to take part in a television market research survey; it’s such a small want that when it collapses in disappointment, the sadness somehow feels even more profound.

Beverly will make its readers uncomfortable. That must be part of Drnaso’s plan. Rather than skip through the awkward sitcom the aforementioned woman is excited to watch as part of her marketing survey, Drnaso lays the whole TV show out in tiny panels, and it’s just as bad as the most mediocre TV show you’ve ever watched. ”Sorry for the way I acted earlier,” the bland father says to his bland wife as they get into bed at the end of the show. “You and the kids are too good to me.” His wife replies, “Oh, honey, you’re too good to us!” Turns out, you can make a comic that’s just as awkward as bad network television. All it takes is a whole lot of talent and a ferocious willingness to maintain a chilly distance between you and your readers. Like the worst television, you can’t look away from Beverly — you’re hypnotized by all the horrible beauty.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Mean girls gone wild

Some of the best comics-minded thinkers — Grant Morrison, Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue DeConnick — love to talk about comic books in musical metaphors. It’s an apt comparison; sometimes going to the comic book store and picking up a few comics is reminiscent of visiting the record store and walking out with a bag full of singles. They’re tiny bursts of art in an eminently consumable, commercial format, and they have their own aura of cool about them.

If Vancouver cartoonist Ryan Heshka’s Mean Girls Club was a record, it would be a blistering woman-fronted punkabilly band's 45, the kind that begins and ends in just under two minutes but somehow expands to consume entire weeks of your life. It’s a gorgeous, self-contained dirty thrill of a book, one that feels simultaneously retro and modern.

It helps that the whole comic as an object is aesthetically pleasing. Published by London comics company Nobrow as part of their 17x23 series — described as “a graphic short story project designed to help talented young graphic novelists tell their stories in a manageable and economic format” — Mean Girls Club is a beautiful package. It’s squatter than most comics, squarish, printed in shades of hot pink on quality paper with french flaps. Very few comics these days, aesthetically, look this good.

Mean Girls Club is a short story about a street gang of unruly women: Pinky, Wendy, Sweets, Blackie, Wanda, and McQualude. They torture innocent people. They take fistfuls of pills and slap each other with fishes and punch well-meaning nurses right in the jaw. And then the mayhem really starts.

Heshka’s retro art recalls a cross between Richard Sala and Charles Burns, and he squeezes invention out of the limited color palette on every page. Most readers of Mean Girls Club will burn through the book in a matter of minutes, but they’ll want to read it over and over again, because it’s just so damn catchy and pretty and funny and raw. If this was a record, you’d wear out the grooves in a matter of weeks.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Bernie Sanders, comic book hero

Last year, cartoonist Ted Rall visited Seattle with Snowden, a comic book biography of Edward Snowden. (I reviewed Snowden and interviewed Rall onstage at Town Hall.) Only a half-year later, Rall’s back, and reading at Town Hall tonight from his brand-new Bernie Sanders biography, Bernie.

Bernie and Snowden share many qualities. Rall makes them easy to read for comics newbies, pretty much drawing a single panel per page. They’re both openly advocating for their subjects — if you’re looking for objectivity, you shouldn’t be picking up a book by Rall in the first place — and they both provide plenty of context to establish the central figures within their time.

Bernie opens with a long, substantial explanation of how the Democratic party leaned to the right in response to George McGovern’s crushing defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon. Rall argues that the party has drifted steadily rightward ever since. (I would counter-argue that Barack Obama is a decidedly more liberal president than Bill Clinton, but I freely admit that this criticism might fall along partisan, rather than aesthetic, lines; in any event, Rall makes a convincing case and supports it with plenty of evidence.)

Ultimately, Bernie isn’t as good a book as Snowden was. It feels rushed, and the many pages depicting a cartoon Sanders speaking are less visually interesting than the explanatory illustrations of Snowden. Too much of the book is spent on a straight-up biography of Sanders, describing his first, failed marriage and his many runs for office. Perhaps it sounds odd to criticize a biography for being too focused on biographical details, but in a presidential year it seems as though it would be more useful to examine Sanders’s policies in more detail, to explain why they’re not too far removed from the global mainstream. Rall mentions many of the policies in passing — single-payer health care most particularly — but a thorough description of them would do wonders to normalize Sanders for a more skeptical audience.

Rall does try to provide a warts-and-all portrait of Sanders, mentioning his occasional support for NRA-approved pro-gun laws and his support for President Obama's drone assassination program. He also brings up, but doesn’t fully address, two very important criticisms of the Sanders campaign: the belief that Sanders couldn’t win the presidency and the corresponding belief that even if he were to become president, he would be unable to break Congressional gridlock to achieve his lofty goals.

But Bernie is worth your time and attention if you’re looking for an explanation of how a decent man decides to run for president. It documents a long, honorable life of civic service and the ideological battle that is right now at the heart of the Democratic Party. When sharing a bookshelf with Snowden, the two books make up a duology of honor and responsibility and citizenship. In a presidential election year, this might be exactly what the American people need to read.

Thursday Comics Hangover: To be young and sad

Local cartoonist Elk Paauw’s minicomic It’s Okay to Be Sad Sometimes is a collection of short comics about sadness. Are all the sadnesses linked to a single cause? Maybe; it’s not entirely clear, though Paauw does allude to a breakup several times. In any case, the book works as a narrative about a single depression or as a thematic collection.

In the first couple pages, Paauw draws themself crying on a train; Paauw’s eyes are big, doe-y bubbles with leaking reservoirs of tears just underneath. A woman on the train turns to Paauw, who angrily replies, “Yes. I’m crying. Move on.” That’s the whole strip, and it seems to be a real you-get-it-or-you-don’t kind of an affair. Either you’ve been sad in public and can relate, or you haven’t and you don’t.

Recognition is key to the appreciation of Sad. The comics in the first half are all about being sad in various situations — buying ice cream, attending a party, riding transit — and the comics in the second half are about what happens when you try to climb out of it. (Will sex help? Is it even possible to find someone to have sex with? How does anyone successfully manage to have sex?) Most of the comics are just a few panels long, and the book feels slight, like a rough draft of something bigger (though for $5, you probably shouldn’t go in with expectations for a dense narrative in the first place.)

Paauw is a gifted young cartoonist. They use dense, almost Sharpie-like lines in their art, but the amount of expressiveness they draw from those lines is surprising. The manga-by-way-of-Scott-Pilgrim influences are clear, but not oppressive; unlike the exaggeration of the comics that influence Paauw’s art, these comics are strictly grounded in realism. You’ve made these faces, worn clothes that hang like this, hugged your mother and cried this way.

Sad is obviously a work by someone who’s just getting started as a cartoonist. You won’t find the shorthand and nuance of, say, a Peter Bagge comic here. But if your cartooning tastes veer more toward the punky end of the spectrum — those works of art that are all about truth and attitude and feelings — you’ll find a lot to like here. It’s a story of figuring it all out, written by someone who is standing on the crossroads, trying to decide what to do next. Whatever “next” entails for Paauw, hopefully they’ll keep making comics.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Sometimes no context is context enough

Recently, I visited a comic book store with a friend. She reads all kinds of graphic novels and collected comics, but she’d never spent more than a few minutes in a comic shop. Immediately, it became clear that for people who haven’t spent their whole lives in comic shops, there’s a bit of a learning curve to browsing. She picked up a comic and turned it over, looking for an explanatory blurb, like the one you find on collected comics. Of course, there are no blurbs on monthly comics. Aside from the cover image, there’s no indication at all what the comic is about.

Finally, frustrated, she asked me, “so how are you supposed to know what the comics are about?”

It was a great point. I explained that you could flip through the comic and see if you were interested, but mostly hardcore comic shop customers browse through a catalog months in advance, read promotional copy about upcoming comics, and order their comics based on that. It had never struck me exactly how weird this system is. Can you imagine what it would look like if bookstores — or, really, any other kind of art at all — relied on the same business model?

I bring this up because a few months ago while browsing the preview catalog, I must have ordered a copy of the first issue of a book called Amazing Forest from my comics shop. I don’t remember ordering it, and looking at the comic, there’s no obvious sign of what the book is supposed to be about. Further investigation reveals that it’s a collection of four short comics stories, all of which are written by Erick Freitas and Ulises Farinas. Each story is drawn by a different artist.

But that’s really all I know: are the stories supposed to be thematically linked? Two of them are weird science stories and two fall within disparate subgenres of fantasy. Reading Amazing Forest was a strangely unmooring experience, because I wasn’t sure if the stories were one-shots or the first installment in serial stories. (In retrospect, I’m pretty sure they’re all self-contained.) Only after I’d read the thing twice through did I begin to have a sense of what the comic was.

Amazing Forest is a Twilight Zone-style comic, which is to say each of the stories focuses on genre, and they generally feature a twist of some kind. Some of the stories are more engrossing than others. The first story, “Tank” — about a crew of men in a futuristic tank who have to battle victims of a plague who bear an eerie resemblance to long-lost loved ones — is good but a little too high-concept for eight pages. The twist in the second story, “Wolf Mother,” left me cold. “Ronnie the Robot” is an old-fashioned EC Comics-style riff, complete with a hoary climax that is pretty obvious, but which still feels satisfying. And the last story, “Bird Watcher,” ventures into weird literary fiction; a nuanced, creepy story, it’s by far the best of the bunch.

In the end, I don’t think I could really tell you what Amazing Forest is supposed to be. It’s kind of an anthology, except they’re all written by the same two people. It’s a short story collection, but the breadth and range of genres give the comic more of a wide-ranging feel and less of a thematic cohesion. That unmooring I mentioned before is not so much a bug as a feature; this is a book that benefits from your inability to categorize it.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Secret War is over (if you want it)

Yesterday saw the publication of the ninth and final issue of Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic's Marvel Comics mega-crossover event, Secret Wars. The series, which works as both a remake of Marvel's 1984 crossover comic of the same name and a reboot of the entire line of Marvel's superhero comics, has been huge and goofy and fun.

You can't really explain Secret Wars to someone who has no prior experience with Marvel Comics. Here's a rough attempt at describing the premise: Doctor Doom has willed himself to godhood, presiding over a patchwork planet constructed from dozens of alternate universes featuring Marvel's heroes in all sorts of strange combinations — cowboy Captain America, 1990s cartoon X-Men, Thor cops, and so on. On its face, it's just an excuse to dress up the old familiar superheroes in new costumes for a while. But in its execution, Secret Wars read like a Game of Thrones-style saga that investigated the very idea of superhero comics.

Hickman's script is dense and witty and, to someone who has never read a superhero comic before, likely impenetrable. But the impenetrability is a feature, not a bug. Just as TV shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad rewarded viewers who watched the whole series from beginning to end, all of Hickman's Marvel work since 2009 has proven itself to be a single text with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusive end.

And so how is the end? It comes together better than I ever would have expected, building to a conclusion that is satisfing and relentlessly optimistic. What Hickman has built in Secret Wars #9 is a superhero comic about the joy and fun of superhero comics, a refutation of decades of relentlessly "realistic" (by which I mean depressing and dark) superhero comics. Rather than destroying legacies and killing characters, Hickman revels in the act of eternal creation. For the never-ending story that is monthly superhero comics, it's a fitting climax.

Ribic proved to be the perfect partner for Hickman's Marvel swan song. His heroes look heroic — even with his painterly style, grown men in spandex don't seem silly at all — and his rendering of Hickman's cosmic concepts feel at once alien and familiar. One page, featuring Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom's faces split into dozens of tiny panels and interspersed, mosaic-like, captures the theme of the series: over the course of decades, every superhero and super villain contains multitudes of interpretations and renderings. Those many selves, from the cartoonish 1960s to the realistic 1970s to the gritty 1980s, may seem contradictory and fractured, but if you stand far enough back and take the whole tableau in, you can see that the purity of the original concept still shines through. These are sturdy ideas, Hickman and Ribic are saying, and they will keep spinning out into the future in ways that will surprise us.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The know-it-all

Paul Tobin and Alberto J. Alburquerque’s comic Mystery Girl, now on its second issue, is an absolute delight so far. Here’s the little blurb at the beginning of each book that explains the premise:

Trine Hampstead knows everything. No mystery is too small or too weird for London’s premier sidewalk detective — and she truly knows it all, from your most personal secrets to the details of the deepest, most incredible conspiracies. The only thing Trine doesn’t know is how she knows everything.

Trine is a woman of color living in London. Every day, she lays out a carpet on the sidewalk, sets up a lawn chair, and solves mysteries. (She attracts clients by shouting at passersby: “No mystery too large or too dumb, mostly!”) Happily, despite the fact that she knows everything about everyone, Trine is a chipper, friendly, optimistic person. Just reading Mystery Girl feels like a relief; if a semi-omniscient sidewalk detective can look on the bright side of life, surely there’s hope for the rest of us, right?

Mystery Girl’s plot is unfolding slowly; Trine is heading to Russia to unravel a complex mystery involving a mammoth, even as her friends are getting mixed up with trouble that involves a creepy hitman.Tobin wisely puts the emphasis on Trine’s characterization in the first two books of the series — her sweetness is as much of a draw as the book’s central mystery at this point.

Alburquerque’s art is reminiscent of comics great Ernie Colón, which is to say he combines a lot of detail with cartoonish faces that display a range of emotions. Occasionally, his anatomy needs work — a chin appears to melt off a character’s face mid-conversation, a woman’s rib cage seems to turn boxy and lumpen — but each of his expressive characters look like unique human beings with inner lives and distinct backgrounds, so I’m inclined to forgive him the rare lapse in anatomical mindfulness.

Mystery Girl feels like a combination of the podcast Mystery Show, the Encyclopedia Brown books, and a Zadie Smith novel. You want to bathe in the world of the book, in part because the scale feels exactly right. Sure, Trine is leaving the relative comfort of her London sidewalk detective business to head to Russia, but the stakes feel relatively modest. Just because Trine knows the solution to every mystery presented to her doesn’t mean that she knows everything. Omniscience does not solve all your problems; sometimes context is what matters most.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The hilarity of failure

Seattle cartoonist Tom Van Deusen’s newest book, EAT EAT EAT, is the latest entry in a long comics tradition: a humorous book about a feckless loser who doesn’t possess the self-awareness to realize that he is a feckless loser. It’s a somewhat proud (if self-loathing) lineage, stretching to Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti from R. Crumb and Dan Clowes and on and on and on.

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EAT EAT EAT is the story of a feckless loser named Tom Van Deusen (the indicia informs us that the book “is a work of pure fiction. Any assertions otherwise are an insult to God and His reality, so how dare you.”) He sits in his apartment, eating whole frozen pizzas and growing fat. He goes on a date with a woman he tracked down on Facebook, and he’s so impossibly self-centered that things turn out badly.

Van Deusen’s portrayal of Van Deusen is entirely at the level of caricature; the cartoon Van Deusen can’t walk past a street food vendor without buying something, even after his date affirms that she’s a vegetarian and she has no interest in eating bad food handed to her by a stranger on a street corner. Then, after the date implodes — the word “m’lady” is involved — Van Deusen tries to join a gym. Things only get worse, and more absurd, from there.

Your taste for this brand of comedy will vary, of course. As someone who read a lot of alternative comics in the 90s, I appreciate what Van Deusen is going for, but I have seen this particular scenario play out in dozens of comics; at this point, the overly pretentious hate-able loser routine feels almost like a nostalgia act. Van Deusen pulls it off really well — he’s undeniably a funny, talented cartoonist — and he invents some new angles on the routine, as when the cartoon Van Deusen “maintain[s] his Facebook angles” on his date, which means he tries to keep his face in the same tortured position as the flattering photo on his Facebook profile as he and his date walk around. It’s an additional, modern humiliation to heap onto the time-honored tradition.

The strips collected in EAT EAT EAT were originally published between 2011 and 2015, and it’s astonishing to watch Van Deusen’s illustration develop and grow over the span of those four years. His early style had a rough charm to it — it was too feathery for my liking — but his later work is developing a nice cartoonish roundness that plays off the prickliness of the writing in a particularly pleasing way. By the end of EAT EAT EAT, the cartoon Van Deusen is just as delusional as ever, but the cartooning Van Deusen leaves the book well-equipped for whatever his next comics challenge may be. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Bringing the fire

“It’s a Christmas un-miracle,” Nick at Phoenix Comics announced yesterday as I stared down the empty wall of new releases. Turns out, the Grinch stole New Comics Day this week: the heavy snowfall at Snoqualmie Pass meant that the Diamond Distribution truck carrying all the new comics intended to arrive in Seattle today was stuck on the east side of the mountains. No comics store in the entire Seattle area received any new comics yesterday. (Shipments are expected to arrive today.) It’s enough to make you consider the fact that building an entire industry around one distributor is a bad idea or something.

Since I was out of town last week, I still had some new-to-me comics to pick up. Of those, the one that surprised me the most was Prometheus Eternal, a collaborative publishing project between Locust Moon Press and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Prometheus Eternal is a comics anthology centered around a theme: the myth of Prometheus in general, and the Peter Paul Rubens/Frans Snyders painting Prometheus Bound in specific. Get a load of the talent that contributed to this volume: Grant Morrison, Farel Dalrymple, Dave McKean, David Mack, Paul Pope, and Bill Sienkiewicz, among others. If the idea of all these names contributing to an anthology about inspiration doesn’t pique your interest, we have very different tastes.

There’s not a clunker in this book. The fiercest complaint you could muster for Prometheus Eternal is that some of the contributions are scanty; the Morrison/Dalrymple collaboration that reimagines Prometheus as a modern superhero is only three pages long, for instance. But those three pages are a doozy: in the first panel a writer stares at an empty screen, her fingers hovering over a keyboard. “I have NO IDEA how to say what I am trying to say,” she says. A man stands in front of a blank canvas, wondering, “What if I never paint again?” The response? “Have no fear! Prometheus is here!” You can probably picture the rest, except Farel Dalrymple is a better artist than whoever draws comics in your imagination.

The stories vary wildly in mood and tone and content. David Mack writes a short open letter to Prometheus. Andrea Tsurumi writes an excellent biographical comic about the creation of Prometheus Bound. Yuko Shimizu contributes a story of a family only loosely tied to the theme. James Comey offers up a very funny gag strip about Prometheus’s eternal torment. Prometheus Eternal is a short book, but it’s short in the always-leave-‘em-wanting-more sense, which should really be the golden rule for all comics anthologies.

This is such a satisfying collection that it will hopefully inspire more of this kind of thing — it would be wonderful to see museums commissioning and publishing comics in response to works in their collections, especially if they could snag contributors of this high caliber. Comics, come to think of it, should really be the preferred medium for art criticism. Prometheus Eternal feels so fresh and so inspired that it should be delivered from a mountaintop in the palm of a demigod. Let’s hope other people do the right thing and crib shamelessly from this example.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Norovirus vs. Mark Millar

Last week, I contracted norovirus. It was terrible, and I’m not going to tell you any more about it except to say that I wound up in bed for 36 hours, feeling awful. I couldn’t watch movies. I couldn’t read poetry or prose. All I could stand to read, all I could focus my attention on for more than a minute at a time, was comic books. This has pretty much always been true for me; whenever I come down with an illness bad enough to send me to bed, I wind up reading comics. I always have a little stash of unread comics lying around for that moment when I get sick and need to get out of my head.

I had bought a used collected edition of Mark Millar’s and Sean Murphy’s comic Chrononauts at University Book Store and added it to my sick stash about a month before the norovirus kicked in. I’m a fan of Murphy’s art — the man can draw anything, from a futuristic pirate civilization in The Wake to religious parody in Punk Rock Jesus — but my feelings for Mark Millar are decidedly more complex. In fact, I think I hate him.

The sad truth about Mark Millar is that almost all of his comics could be pitched as “What if __ were irresponsible?” His comic Kick-Ass is about what would happen if superheroes were a bunch of irresponsible pricks. Civil War and Old Man Logan are about what would happen if every character in the Marvel universe started to act like an asshole. The Ultimates is about the Avengers being egomaniacal monsters. Jupiter’s Circle is about the Superman family of characters acting like the Kardashians. And on and on and on. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, in theory: virtually any premise could make a good comic, if handled correctly. But Millar’s characters are all the exact same asshole, the kind of insufferable douche who gets drunk at a party and immediately starts bragging about how awesome his life is. If Millar’s parodying something, that parody gets lost in all the obnoxious braggadocio.

And I’m sorry to report that Chrononauts is the most Mark Millar-iest comic in the history of the world. The main characters are two assholes — one is a brunette and one is a blond, and that’s about all the character development we get — who travel through time irresponsibly. The brunette, early on in the book, expresses regret about a relationship with a woman that he screwed up. (Just before he jumps in time, he calls his ex and asks her, “How could you leave me for that sleazy lawyer?” She replies, “He made time for me, Corbin.” If you can read that line in the first chapter of a book about time travelers and not see exactly how this book is going to end, you might be Mark Millar’s ideal reader.) The blond guy talks about “banging every co-ed from here to Timbuktu” and makes finger guns. They call each other “dude” and fist-bump a lot.

Here is the plot: the time travelers decide to rule the world. “Back home I’ve got nothing, dude” the inventor of the world’s first time-travel device tells his friend. “Here, I’m a king,” he says, and he gestures around his kingdom: there’s a large print of a woman wearing a bikini on the wall, and a few sports cars, and a pool table, and some samurai swords. It’s a 15-year-old boy’s idea of what ruling the world would be like.

Again, maybe this is supposed to be satire. Maybe Millar intends Bill and Ted Meet Tucker Max to be commentary on the empty-headedness of modern men. But satire comes from a moral place, and there’s no real moral judgment at play here. In fact, this book seems to step back on every page and shake the reader by her shoulder and say, “isn’t this totally awesome?” It’s all a set-up for a cross-time chase sequence that lasts several issues and is impeccably illustrated by Murphy. But there are no stakes, no lessons, and no real surprises. It’s just exactly the kind of dick-swinging jackassery that a teenage boy would write, only drawn and packaged professionally.

Every time I read something written by Mark Millar, I feel unclean afterwards. He’s made his fortune by writing directly toward the ugly id of a very particular brand of comics fan, the self-entitled nerd-bros who dominated the industry for decades before women and minorities finally made their voice heard. Millar’s leering adolescent power fantasies feel like the deathbed rattle of an industry that refused change for as long as it possibly could.

Lying there in my sick bed, I couldn’t get Chrononauts out of my head. Those two terrible men who do whatever they want and avoid all repercussions took up residence there in bed with me, fist-pounding and trying to out-brag each other about how cool they are. Chrononauts left me feeling even sicker than I felt before I picked it up. It left me with the realization that even norovirus is preferable to Mark Millar.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Utopian symmetry

In the back pages of the first issue of the new series Symmetry, writer Matt Hawkins admits he’s “gotten a bit sick of” dystopia’s omnipresence, and so he decided to try writing utopian fiction, instead. He read Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (“it’s boring as hell,” Hawkins tells his readers, urging them to “skim it”) and embarked on months of research, determining the four qualities of all utopias in fiction (ambition, creativity, diversity, and instruments of capital must be eliminated) and what he believes to be the four pillars of society (community, peace, harmony, and equality are required). Finally, Symmetry is his story of that utopia.

Hawkins was lucky enough to find an artist in Raffaele Ienco who seems uniquely qualified to draw a utopian vision: his art has a painterly quality that brings both beauty and detail to the surroundings. Each panel of Ienco’s is packed with information: we see gleaming hallways and countless background extras as our protagonist walks around his utopia, while dome-headed robot nannies supervise all the action and ensure that humans don’t cause each other (or themselves) any harm. (One robot snatches a beverage out of the hands of our main character, Michael, saying: “Citizen, excuse me! That drink is not optimized for your nutritional needs. This one is. Labeling error. My apologies, citizen.”) Occasionally, up close, the features of the people in Ienco’s art look too plasticine, but there’s so much information packed into every page that it’s an easy-enough flaw to ignore.

The first issue is entirely devoted to establishing the world. High-level technology renders it almost unrecognizable to us — humans are born asexual, for example, and they choose their own genders and names at age 13. And the reader has to spend most of the issue shaking off those dystopian reading habits. By issue’s end, you keep expecting Michael to turn the corner and find evil robots shoving humans into a giant pie-making device, or making a secret stash of feral humans fight for the robot’s amusement. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen in utopian fiction; the inciting incident for the action pretty much always has to come from outside.

You can’t dwell on the plot of the first issue of Symmetry, because, well, nothing much happens. That’s not really fair; aside from the establishment of a well-considered sci-fi world, two events happen, one of which is a spaceship crash. But it’s hard to say what the consequences of those actions are, exactly — what kind of a plot they’re propelling. It’s interesting to read a book and finish the first issue and know by the end of it that everything has changed, but to not know what that means, or even if we should be happy about it. I wouldn’t want to live in the world of Symmetry, but I sure am glad to visit.

Thursday Comics Hangover: A vision of normalcy

Every once in a while, a truly individual voice will emerge out of the morass of conventional superhero comics. These occasions are always a surprise — nobody could have predicted that Swamp Thing would become a convergence point between art and commercial comics until Alan Moore and Steve Bissette landed on the book, and nobody expected much of Daredevil until Frank Miller was allowed to get experimental with the character. It’s too early to draw a comparison Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision to those two examples, but two issues into the series, it’s already clear that the book is something special.

The premise of The Vision is that the Avengers’ resident density-controlling synthezoid has constructed a nuclear family (his wife, Virginia, and his two children, Viv and Vin, look just like him, purple skin and all) and moved to the suburbs. This has been done with this character before — in the 1980s, Marvel produced a couple of limited series centered around the married life of the Vision and Scarlet Witch — and superhero comics often flirt with suburban life as a source of comedy. But King is doing something very different here, and it doesn’t read like any other superhero comic on the stands today.

In the first issue, Virginia made a choice to protect her children, and in the second issue she constructs an elaborate fiction to hide the truth of what happened from Vision. The pair sit awkwardly on a couch, dressed like preppy humans in a clothing catalog, and they begin to understand the complexity of married life. “They could hear the stutter and roll of a skateboard riding through their street,” the captions explain….

…the lazy caw of birds yelling in the wind. The bland, passive roar of a 757 cutting into a cloud. These are the noises of their every day, the banal background to their new home. They used to sound so pleasant.

The Vision drops a godlike, aloof figure into the American suburbs of John Cheever, but it’s not interested in easy satire. Instead, it deals with the discomfort of what happens when you finally get everything you ever wanted, and the vertiginous moment when you realize that life just keeps going after you achieve your dreams.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s art perfectly resonates with the hollow echo accentuated in King’s script. He’s not interested in making the Vision and his family look human, but they’re not superhero-idealized, either. Instead, they look like they’re trying to behave like humans. They move with a kind of uncomfortable emulation, except for the moments when they take to the skies. When they fly, they’re graceful and lean. It’s one of the few times they’re not trying to pass for normal.

We’re only on the second issue of The Vision, which means things could yet go totally wrong. But the first issue ended with one of the darkest twists I’ve read in a Marvel comic, and the second issue is cloaked in an appealing sense of impending doom. You get the sense as a reader that if King and Walta are allowed to make future issues of The Vision as uncomfortable and full of yearning and quiet moments as these first two issues, you could be watching the start of something truly memorable.

Friday Comics Hangover: The Dark Knight, reheated

By far, the most-hyped comics release of the week is DK III: The Master Race, the third volume in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. Ostensibly co-written by Brian Azzarello, the actual authorship of DK III is in question — Frank Miller has basically admitted that he’s not been involved in the writing of the series. Whoever actually wrote the story, Miller certainly didn’t draw the book; the art is by Andy Kubert, with inking by Dark Knight veteran Klaus Janson. So we have a sequel to a much-maligned sequel to one of the all-time classic Batman stories, written-but-probably not-at-all-written by the original writer and drawn by a different artist. How is it?

Well, it feels like fan fiction. But it doesn’t even feel like Dark Knight fan fiction; it feels like DK II fan fiction. For those of you who have better things to do, the sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, DK II, is pretty roundly regarded as a failure. Marred by atrocious computer coloring and written in a completely different tone than the original Dark Knight series, DK II was a more cartoonish take on the future of the DC Comics canon, including a Batman who was actually — gasp! — having fun. Some contrarians still defend DK II for being a cheeky dissection of the idea of superhero comics. I can understand that defense, but I disagree: the problem with DK II was that it was bad comics. Miller’s satire, never very subtle, took on the form and grace of a cement block. The jokes felt private and insular, the worldview felt increasingly mean-spirited as the book went on, and the entertainment value was erratic. (At times, the book did express a sort of madcap thrill; I might be remembering this wrong, but I’m pretty sure Miller processed 9/11, which happened between issues two and three of the series, in the comics as a giant cartoon frog demolishing a city.)

So in DK III, we have a writer trying on the affect of Miller’s DKR-era writing style and an artist trying on the affect of Miller’s art. Neither is really successful. Azzarello tries to mimic Miller’s style of mocking the media, but really he’s just using the stand-ins for Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart as exposition delivery systems. The book’s plot is delivered in a straight-faced manner, and a last-page twist is so obvious in execution that it ought to be accompanied with a sad trombone sound effect. Perhaps Azzarello is building to something momentous — he’s done good stuff in the past — but right now it feels like too-serious superhero comics at a too-high price point. ($5.99? Come on!)

I’ve never been a fan of Andy Kubert’s artwork. He’s a second-generation comics artist (his father is the legendary Joe Kubert), and his illustration style has the soulless ache of someone who never bothered to learn how to draw anything other than comics. His composition is boring, his figures are thick, and the Milleresque tiny panels on every page only serve to make his art look even sillier by comparison. He has never drawn an interesting page in his life; they’re all awkward grimaces and poses, with not one bit of a recognizable reality on the page.

The only fun part of the first issue of DK III is the enclosed mini-comic starring The Atom, illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson. It’s tipped into a cardboard leaflet in the center of the book, and it begins with The Atom fighting a dinosaur and reflecting on his divorce, and how aging has mellowed him as a man. This is the kind of fun, weird stuff that people who praise DK II are looking for in their books, and the format feels novel and interesting. Unfortunately, the comic stops short when a plot thread from the main book intrudes on the story, making it a glorified post-credits scene in a Marvel movie: something entertaining, followed by a teaser that pushes the story forward into the next installment. Who cares?

A few years ago, DC Comics tried to mine the Alan Moore/David Gibbons comic Watchmen in a series of prequels. Before Watchmen was presented as a prestige project, and it included a number of big-name comics creators including Azzarello and Kubert. The comics were, for the most part, technically excellent. But they simply didn’t matter. The books were released and collected and rereleased in book form, and nobody gave a shit and they were immediately forgotten. Unless something transformative happens in the next few issues, DK III will suffer the same fate.

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.