Friday, November 15, 2019

Thank you, Tom Spurgeon.

I've never sat down to write something that I didn't want to write as badly as I don't want to write this. Tom Spurgeon has died.

A comics journalist, an author, a newspaper comic strip writer and a comics festival executive director, Tom Spurgeon was one of the best champions and best friends that the comics medium has ever had. Like seemingly everyone I know or know of that has anything to do with comics, I appreciated his work to a degree that is hard to overstate.

I interacted with him online, and he even interviewed me once—an incredibly strange experience for me as a former journalist, as I had interviewed hundreds of people before, but never been the interviewee. However I never met Tom in real life, despite having the opportunity to do so several times at a couple of the Cartoon Crossroads Columbus shows, mostly because I am anxious and anti-social and never know how to introduce myself to people I only know from the Internet.

That said, it was rare a day during the past 15 years has gone by in which I didn't hear something from Tom. Not personally, of course, but through his invaluable website, The Comics Reporter. When I first started thinking about comics blogging in 2005 and 2006, The Comics Reporter was always one of my first stops online every morning, even on weekends, when I knew there would be less content. As other sites came and went, or went in directions that didn't interest me, or as more and more bloggers transitioned away from long-form writing and into the micro-blogging of Twitter, The Comics Reporter never dropped from my morning Internet-reading ritual, even as its format shifted. Tom Spurgeon, then, was a part of my life; there are days, weeks and, in some cases, months, where I might not hear from people as close as my mother, my father, my brother and sisters or the people I consider my best friends, but I would still hear Tom saying something every day.

His voice was a valuable, even invaluable one. He covered everything in comics because he cared about everything in comics. While manyfar too manyoutlets covering comics online tend to cover genre, or, perhaps, format, Tom covered the medium. Superhero comics, alternative and underground comics, newspaper cartoons, political cartoons, international political cartoons, European comics, literary comics, mini-comics, manga, kids comics, webcomics...to Tom, comics were comics, and thus they deserved to be covered.

Which isn't to say that Tom, despite his universal interest in the medium, was an expert on every aspect. But when he would link to are share a few words about an area of the field he wasn't as steeped in as othersthe ins-and-outs of byzantine superhero crossover stories, or the latest mangahe would often somewhat sheepishly talk about that as if it were a failing of his, of something that needed to be corrected. During the years I read The Comics Reporter, I can't tell you how often I've seen him say that he's not yet caught up on something, or that he needs to take the time to learn more about a particular creator's work, or that he wishes he were familiar with a particular area of comics and hoped to do better in the future. It was always phrased thusly, rather than his dismissing some chunk of the medium.

Personally, I always appreciated that Tom made me feel like I mattered, and that I too was a part of comics. No matter how many times he linked to my work, even when it was just blogposts here, I would get a little jolt of excitement seeing my name appear on his blog, but more than that, it was his listing of me as part of a city's comic book "scene" (even though, for me, it was more geographic than anything, given how antisocial I always was), or interviewing me as I mentioned, or including me in his daily lists of birthdays. I am not a comics creatorI mean, technically, I have created some comics, but I don't think anyone including myself would define me as suchnor am I particularly widely-read or influential voice on comics, so it was always weird to me to find myself included as a person who mattered enough to take note of my age (which is why he listed birthdays; more so than simply wishing people a happy day).

But that was one of the things about Tom Spurgeon that made him so widely read and, if not universally beloved, then at least universally appreciated: Everyone in comics mattered to Tom, because comics mattered to Tom.

As many of you know, when I launched Every Day Is Like Wednesday, I lived in Columbus, Ohio. I had, in fact, just been fired from my job as an editor at the city's last independently-owned alternative newsweekly, which was then in the process of being purchased by the city's daily newspaper (actually, in their corporate-speak, I wasn't "fired," rather my "contract was being non-renewed"). The blog gave me an outlet to still write a couple hundred words per day, and gave me something productive-feeling to do between looking for jobs and trying to figure out what I really wanted to do in order to earn enough money to make rent and buy groceries. One of the reasons I was given for my not being kept on was that the paper was going to go in a different direction, and they didn't want to cover the sorts of things I covered; this was, of course nonsense, as we had a five-person writing and editing staff, so we all covered everything, but one of the things they specifically mentioned was that they didn't want to cover comics.

A few years later, I finally moved from Columbus back to northeast Ohio, closer to my hometown and my family. My biggest regret about doing so? Shortly thereafter, Tom Spurgeon moved to Columbus, a city that he quite rightly recognized as a good, maybe even ideal one for comics-making, for a variety of reasons we don't need to get into at this point. And, there with cartoonist Jeff Smith, his wife and Cartoon Books business partner Vijaya Iyer, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum founder and curator Lucy Shelton Caswell and others, Spurgeon helped assemble what seemed to me, in my limited experience, a perfect conception of a comics show, one based on European comics shows' integration of the festival into the city itself. So rather than sealing a show off in a convention center, visitors would be encouraged to visit Ohio State University's Wexner Center for The Arts, the Billy Ireland Museum, the Columbus Metropolitan Librarian and various points in between.

I can't tell you how much I regret missing that part of Columbus' comics history, no longer living within walking distance of where the world's greatest cartoonists were visiting. For a few days a year, it now seemed as if comics was coming directly to Columbus, rather than being something that happened in a nebulous "out there," accessibly solely through the screen of one's computer monitor. I worry about what will happen to CXC now, just as I worry about a comics Internet that no longer includes The Comics Reporter.

One thing Spurgeon has written about repeatedly on his site, spurred on I suppose by the passing of Joe Simon, Will Eisner, Stan Lee and some of the other giants of comic books who were there at its founding, is that we should all take the time to let our heroes or creators we admire know how much they mean to us while they are here, to, essentially, write fan letters to cartoonists, to let them know what they and their work has meant to us.

I never took that advice. I regretted not doing so when Norm Breyfogle, one of my favorite comics artists and one of the people whose work first got me interested in comics, passed away at a surprisingly young age. And I regret not doing so now, as Tom Spurgeon, a man whose words were a part of my daily life for much of my adult life now, is quite suddenly no longer here to receive a fan letter from me.

Although Tom passed away at a very young age of 50, and I think it wouldn't have been unreasonable to expect him to be around for another 30-45 years, it wasn't as shocking as it might have been had he not had a dramatic health scare in 2011. Here's what he wrote at the time, "All Of These Things That Have Made Us", and it bears re-reading now. Certainly no amount of my words about Tom are worth the words he himself wrote then.

My most sincere condolences to Tom's family and his many, many friends, peers and admirers in the comics field. And, to the spirit of the comics medium itself, I want to express my sympathy. I'm sorry for your loss, Comics; this is a terrible blow.


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Whenever an important figure in comics would pass away, Tom Spurgeon would compile a "collective memory" list of links to everyone's articles, essays and tributes to that person on Comics Reporter. Tucker Stone at The Comics Journal is doing that for Tom now. If you haven't seen that post already, please take some time to do so.


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Tom Spurgeon has repeatedly posted this Bernard Kliban cartoon, noting that he identifies with the policeman in the image. He was joking, of course, but only by a matter of degree. His persona as a comics journalist, critic and writer was to go out into the world and try to clear a path for cartoonists. In his too-short life, he kicked a lot of swines' asses.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: September 2019



BOUGHT:


Batman: The Caped Crusader Vol. 3 (DC Comics) This trade paperback collects Batman #445-454, Detective Comics #615 (the middle chapter of a three-part crossover with Batman) and Batman Annual #14, all from 1990. This was a period just before I started reading comics a year or two later, but it was close enough to when I started that I picked up many of these in the back issue bins of my first comic shops. In fact, I believe the only stories in here I hadn't read before were 1.)  #444-447, Marv Wolfman and Jim Aparo's sequel to their KGBeast story arc, in which Batman travels to Moscow to stop the Beast's protege, the NKVDemon, 2.) the first and third chapters of "The Penguin Affair", co-written by Wolfman and then Detective Comics writer Alan Grant and drawn by a trio of artists (I'd read the middle chapter, by Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle repeatedly, of course),  and 3.) a two-part Joker story.

This volume represents the tail end of Wolfman's run on Batman. In fact, the last story arc collected is a bridge of sorts between Wolfman's run and Grant's taking of the reigns. That would be the Peter Milligan-written "Dark Knight, Dark City." (As for the remaining story, that's the 1990 annual, a Two-Face focused story written by Andrew Helfer and drawn by Chris Sprouse.) I assume that means this will be the end of the Caped Crusader collections, as the next batch of issues of Batman are Grant/Breyfogle ones, which have been collected elsewhere already.

Reading (and/or re-reading) these comics in their proper sequence and context like this, one of the things that became apparent was how much tighter continuity was back then. Though the collection is dominated by some of Batman's biggest roguesThe Joker, The Penguin, Two-Face and The Riddlertheir appearances seemed like big deals, and there characters all had something of an arc.

The Penguin, for example, is afforded a three-issue, multi-book crossover in which he brings Gotham City to a standstill and almost kills Batman repeatedly, thanks to mute, hunchback "Einstein's brain in Quasimodo's body" Harold's invention that allows him to control birds.

The Joker is still recovering physically and mentally from being shot in the chest just before his helicopter crashed at the climax of "A Death In The Family" the year before, and he has essentially lost his mojo; he references his thing with Two-Face in "A Lonely Place of Dying", but there's a rather unusual (by today's standards) timeline of what Joker was doing when and where (that story, by the way, involves a Joker impostor* drawing The Joker out, and ultimately getting thrown back in Arkham where he becomes "himself" again. The events of "Death In The Family" and 1988's The Killing Joke are all pretty fresh in the minds of Batman and Commissioner Gordon, too).

The Riddler story "Dark Knight, Dark City" is his return to villainy, after he was all but retired in the pages of 1989's Secret Origins Special (in a excellent short story by perhaps the single most unlikely Batman creative team of all time, Neil Gaiman, B.E.M., Matt Wagner and Joe Matt), thinking there's really no place for a Riddler in a world where The Joker is killing people. That too was a three-issue arc.

I think the sense of event and of a continuing story during this time period of Batman comics comes from several factors. Certainly creators have a lot more leeway today than they did back then; if more than one writer wants to use a villain in the same year or month these days, it's not like DC ever seems to say no, which is why we might get, like, eight different Ra's al Ghul stories across six titles in a single calendar year, for example.

But there's also the fact that there's just so many more Batman comics every month; in 1990, there were just twoBatman and Detective. This December, DC has solicited around ten, depending on what you want to consider a Batman book. They are Batman, Detective Comics, Batman Universe, The Batman's Grave, Batman/Superman, Batman and The Outsiders, Batgirl, Nightwing, Catwoman and Red Hood. And that's not counting non-canonical stuff ,like Batman Beyond, Batman: Curse of the White Knight, Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child, Batman Tales: Once Upon A Time, Shadow of The Batgirl, Joker: Killer Smile and Joker/Harley: Killer Smile. And then there are all the comics from the Harley Quinn spin-off franchise. And the books in which Batman and members of his cast appear prominently, like Justice League, Teen Titans, Young Justice and so on.

That's a lot of pages to fill, which means pretty much every month almost every A-list (and B-list, C-list and probably even D-list) Batman villain is going to appear...repeatedly. And because so many of those appearances are in their own, distinct, out-of-continuity stories, it seems as if creators all have an implied permission to do whatever they like to reinvent the characters with each usage. Sure, in theory, that's a good thing, to let comics creators create without having to worry about their editors stomping on their ideas...but only in theory. After all, it's not like every Killer Croc story a person who works for DC comes up with is both a) a great story and b) needs to be told, you know...?

The other thing that seems sort of strange about these comics when read today is how much Batman gets the shit kicked out of him during the course of his adventures. The character has become so synonymous with being prepared for every eventuality that it now seems kind of rare for almost anyone save the greatest villains to ever get the jump on him, but, well, in "The Penguin Affair" he is repeatedly almost killed by flocks of mind-controlled birds. I mean, a fucking goose knocks him on his back, making him think, "Can't take many more knocks like that--!"

This more mortal, vulnerable Batman also just seems to wear plain old gray and black (but colored blue) spandex, which tears away easily to show human flesh, and he's occasionally bloodied. Perhaps it's the influence of the movies, but today's Batman costume is more akin to a suit of armor.

The two non-Wolfman stories that finish up the book were the most striking to me this time around. I've read both before, one of them repeatedly, but this time I couldn't help but notice how both seem like more-or-less throwaway stories"Dark Knight, Dark City", for example, appear to be a fill-in arcbut both had apparently out-sized pop culture influence.

The Helfer/Sprouse/Steve Mitchell Two-Face annual is basically the character's origin story...re-told here as an extension of Miller and Mazzucchelli's then just three-year-old "Year One" arc. This is essentially the story that Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would expand upon in their Long Halloween, fiddling with it quite a bit (and adding a dozen villains or so), but, as in Loeb's version, Helfer's has Dent turning to murder as a means of achieving justice long before the first drop of acid touched his face.

The story even more strongly pre-figures the Batman: The Animated Series 1992 two-episode Two-Face origin (simply titled "Two-Face), so much show that the character design of the cartoon's Harvey Dent seems to be a direct adaptation of Sprouse's version of the character.

And then there's this hospital room sequence.
Re-reading it today, it's impossible not to see the scene with Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent from 2008's Dark Knight. Although that film's Two-Face resembled Tim Sale's rather than Sprouse's, it practically used this scene as a storyboard.

As for "Dark Knight, Dark City," it includes scenes set in the 18th century township of Gotham, wherein a small group of occultists perform The Ceremony of The Bat in an attempt to raise "the Daemon calling itself BARBATHOS."

It's a scene that Grant Morrison re-visited during the course of his multi-title Batman run, specifically in the miniseries Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, and Barbathos became Barbatos, the cosmic devil being that played such an important role in the Scott Snyder-written Dark Nights: Metal series and its many attendant spin-offs.


Bizarre Adventures #1 (Marvel Entertainment) This is one of several one-shots Marvel is publishing this year to celebrate their kinda-sorta 80th anniversary...and/or to renew various copyrights and trademarks, one assumes. Taking its title from the one that anthology comics magazine Marvel Preview bore over the course of its last 10 issues, from 1981-1983, the issue features four stories featuring a rather randomly assembled cast of stars and some interesting creators. I came for Becky Cloonan on Marvel's Dracula, personally, but I kinda like all of the characters involved.

There are three 9-page "serious" stories, followed by a three-page gag comic built around a single joke rather well-told. Each features a credits-page that also gives readers a little paragraph explaining who the character is, exactly, which one imagines might be necessary for some of these guys.

Writer Jed Mackay and artist Chris Mooneyham present a Ulysses Bloodstone story set in the ancient, almost prehistoric past, when the famed monster-hunter (now most famous for being Elsa Bloodstone's dad, I guess) was more-or-less a Conan-like barbarian character (albeit one with a glowing red gem in his chest). The story bears a passing resemblance to Robert E. Howard's oft-adapted "Tower of The Elephant" story, but here the super-powered alien being worshiped as a magical being is one that will be quite familiar to Marvel comics readers: A skrull.

There's not much too it, really, but I really like Mooneyham's line work. He draws wind and weather you can feel, and when Bloodstone swings his sword, you can almost feel the breeze of it passing in front of your face.

Writer Sebastian Girner and artist Francesco Manna have an interesting Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu story that has the hero meeting a white eyebrow master type in a Chinese "ghost city" for one of what we find are occasional battles. The creators get a lot done, in terms of revealing aspects of Shang Chi's character, demonstrating how good he is at kung fu, and the one thing that prevents him from being as great a master of it as the old guy he's fighting. Although maybe that depends on one's perspective, as that weakness is the same one that makes Shang Chi a hero.

The creators attempt to fast-forward through the battle, and give a sense of how big, intense and wide-ranging it is in a two-page spread with a handful of in-set panels and illustrations and a dotted line showing their path through the city but...while the information is conveyed, what they're trying to say is clear without having much impact. It's not hard to see how the strategy might have worked better if it had a more insane amount of content on it. Like, it's not hard to imagine what, say, Tom Scioli might have done with that space and concept, with ten or twenty times as many in-set panels in the same space, you know...?

Cloonan both draws and co-writes her Dracula story, with co-writer Michael Conrad. It's a pretty great story, again covering a great deal of ground in terms of characterization, demonstrating Dracula's immortality, his romantic side, his monstrous aspect and his occasional dandy-like manner. It's not a terribly Marvel story, other than the fact that this Dracula has a mustache, but then, Dracula did have a Bizarre Adventures cover of his own before, unlike these other guys.

Set in the present and in the late 1930s, it features Dracula using a pseudonym no more difficult to see through than, say, Dr. Acula would be, and visiting a club, where he sets his sights on a beautiful young woman. She, in a neat reveal, turns out to be the descendant of someone he crossed paths with in the 19th century and, in another elegant reveal, the ancestor of another person he crosses paths with.

Cloonan's Dracula is, visually, a perfect mix of creepy, elegant, bad-ass and sexy...he's Bela Lugosi's Dracula, if he were given the power and agility of a cartoony drawing. I can't imagine Marvel ever commissioning such a project, particularly as they've been using the character more and more as a super-villain involved in the lives of the X-Men and, most recently, The Avengers, but damn, I sure would love to read a Conrad and Cloonan ongoing series featuring their Dracula, maybe with more limited interaction with Marvel characters (like, maybe just Blade, or some Golden Age heroes, or a cowboy character or three, etc).

The final story is a Black Goliath one by writer Jon Adams and artist Aaron Conley. While some panel-time is spent on William Foster in Black Goliath mode, bragging about his super-powers and wearing his original, extremely-dated get-up, the focus is on a peculiarity of his power. That is, when he grows to his enormous size, he borrows mass from "an extradimensional source." Here, we see that borrowing of mass from within the extradimensional source. Which is, unfortunately for the inhabitants, inhabited.

It's a simple gag, but quite effectively told. I wonder if a more straight or serious artist, echoing the styles that the character would have originally been drawn in might have been slightly more effective, but Conley's art is really appealing, and he's great with funny-looking expressions.


Justice League #31 (DC) Well this issue, at least, has a lot going on. Co-written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV and drawn by Jorge Jimenez, this second chapter of "Justice/Doom War" has the "home" team of Hawkgirl, Starman, Shayne, World Forger and The Monitor racing Perpetua and Lex Luthor to the Promethean Galaxy, where they hope to find and recruit The Anti-Monitor. Meanwhile, the two "away" teams are embroiled in adventures along the lines of the old "Crisis on Earth-Something-or-other" types of JLoA stories, where they encounter other teams and heroes.

In 1941, Flash Barry Allen and Green Lantern John Stewart get to know the long-absent Justice Society of America, who we haven't seen in-continuity for eight years now...and who, as far as as anyone in the DCU knows, never even existed after the machinations of Pandora or Doctor Manhattan or Dan DiDio or whoever around the Flashpoint/The New 52-boot. They go through the expected introductions, including confusion that results from The Flash and Green Lantern introducing themselves to The Flash and Green Lantern, and Barry and John puzzling over the how many duplicates there are of heroes in their own time, and the Flash's weird feeling of deja vu (alluded to in an earlier chapter, when he started to almost remember his own death in the pages of Crisis On Infinite Earths).

The best part? When Barry looks at the diminutive Golden Age Atom and says, "We have an Atom and a Starman, too, but yours seem to have different powers... Can your Atom shrink anymore than that?" At which point The Atom bristles and threatens to punch him. I am a big fan of Al Pratt's super-power basically being weaponized short man's disease.

Also of note, at least to me, is the fact that Jimenez seems to draw Wildcat's costume as...fuzzy. I've never thought of him in a fuzzy cat-suit before, although I suppose it could have always been fuzzy, and different artists just didn't draw it in such a way that its texture was apparent. I'm not sure how I feel about a fuzzy Wildcat. I've always loved the idea of a big tough guy coming at criminals dressed like a giant house cat, as that's a hell of a lot scarier than a dude, say, dressed as a bat, but if the suit's fuzzy? Well, that's kind of approaching furry territory, isn't it...? (Also, I prefer Golden Age Wildcat's costume to be depicted with the enormous cat eyes, just as I prefer Hawkman's helmet having big, weird staring bird eyes; both are drawn here to have white, pupil-less eyes in their masks).

Anyway, the two Leaguers eventually figure out that the maguffin they are there to retrieve is Golden Age Starman's cosmic rod, the original of which is kept at "a military base in the pacific." The reveal of which military base, and the exact date that the Leaguers have arrived on, is a really well-handled reveal that I've probably spoiled just by hinting around, but then, this issue came out so many weeks ago that hopefully you've already read it if you were going to.

Meanwhile, in the future, The Trinity hang out with Kamandi, fight Brainiac robots and realize how Braniac seized control of Kamandi's time period: He's apparently been bottling possible futures throughout hyper-time like he's traditionally done with cities.

Then we get about three pages of pretty striking moments. The Trinity and Kamandi are confronted by Justice Legion A, the 853rd century's answer to the JLA that Grant Morrison, Val Semeiks and company created for their (excellent) DC One Million; there's an awesome/stupid sequence in which Sinestro, Cheetah and Gorilla Grodd are piloting Japanese zeroes and leading the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and Aquaman makes his entirely predictable return after being presumed dead way back in "Drowned Earth".

Things are definitely happening now, and, the best part is, that in addition to being fun and exciting things on their own terms, they seem to be leading back toward a pre-Flashpoint version of the DCU, when their were generations of heroes stretching back to the Golden Age and a loose but linear history to the shared universe, rather than just a confused blob of NOW! plus whichever stories the writers most fondly remember and/or want to use to buttress their own fan-fic retreads.

Hooray!



Justice League #32 (DC) Artist Howard Porter joins Snyder and Tynion for the third chapter of "Justice/Doom War." More than one artist in a single story arc is almost always a bad thingmaybe they should have had three artists each drawing one of the three distinct time periods the story is unfolding on?but I can't say that I'm disappointed to see Porter show up. That's because he was the pencil artist for JLA, and so I always enjoy seeming him other versions of the League, and here we get to see him draw two other teams of heroes who crossed paths with his League during his JLA run, the JSA and Justice Legion-A.

This issue features some Star Wars-esque space battling in the present, climaxing with The Anti-Monitor picking a side in the war; The Trinity vs. Justice Legion-A (the Legion should really wipe the floor with the three Leaguers in seconds flat, but they're being controlled by Brainiac, which maybe handicaps them...?) and their teaming-up-to-fight-a-greater-menace being the somewhat unimaginative Brainiac One Million (Brainiac's DC One Million analogue was, remember, Heartiac); and Barry Allen, John Stewart and the JSA battling the Legion of Doom in the middle of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, climaxing with the arrival of Aquaman, which is a pretty cool scene, even if the drama of it was lost by his role in the story already being revealed last issue.

Snyder and Tynion give The Flashes and Green Lanterns some bonding time, as they share dialogue on a few pages, but nothing particularly revelatory comes out of their talks...certainly nothing that can compete with the simple power of Porter drawing the two Lanterns streaking through the sky together, or the two Flashes running over water side by side. The JSA has been MIA so long, that just seeing them teaming up with the Justice League in a comic book again is genuinely exciting.



Marvel Monsters #1 (Marvel) This 30-page one-shot special is essentially a bonus issue of its writer Cullen Bunn's short-lived, 12-issue series Monsters Unleashed, starring new character Kid Kaiju and the five giant monsters he created using his imagination and his Inhuman super-power (That series was itself introduced in a five-part miniseries, in which the heroes of the Marvel Universe battled many of the old-school, pre-Fantastic Four #1 monsters created by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and their colleagues.

There's a ten-page framing sequence by Bunn and artist Scott Hepburn, in which Kid Kaiju and one of his monsters investigate a spooky mad science castle on an island in the Baltic Sea, and there they find a book entitled Anatomy of The Monstrous, at which point the comic gives way to the supposed contents of the book. These are somewhat confused, as they pair a pin-up style image of a classic Marvel monster by a guest comics artist, none of which really look like they could/would be found within the pages of Anatomy of The Monstrous, with a "monster cross-section" credited to a "Superlog," all of which do seem to be what one might find in such a book (All created by the same person, they all look like they belong together, for example, and they are all concerned somewhat with the anatomy of the monsters).

So the meat of the comic is 20 pages of Marvel monster illustrations by Superlog and a who's who of artists-you-really-want-to-see-drawing-monsters, including Nick Bradshaw, Jacen Burrows, Becky Cloonan, Juan Jose Ryp and others. The particular monsters are Fin Fang Foom, Gigantus, Goliath,The Hypno Creature, Man-Thing, Mangog, Manphibian, Monsteroso, Monstro, The Space Beast and Zzutak. Bradshaw's cover, therefore, is only 25% accurate.

Superlog's variant cover has fewer monsters, and a full 50% of those appear within.
I'm willing to forgive both based on how awesome the covers are, as I imagine most readers are. Although I suppose there's always a chance that the world's biggest Orrgo fan picked this up just because Orrgo is on the covers, and now that fan is super-disappointed.

After the reader gets done staring at Superlog and company's imagesStokoe's Fin Fang Foom, Clayton Crain's Space Beast and Ryp's Monsteroso best-reward long, lingering scrutinyBunn and Hepburn's narrative resumes, and what "story" there is reaches its conflict and resolution.

The castle and the book, which Kid Kaiju refers to as "a how-to guide for making monsters," belong to a little kid who introduces himself as Maximlian Frankenstein. He has apparently used it to make a bunch of hybrid versions of the monsters we just learned about, in weird forms and boasting the powers of all of them in weird arrangements. There's a giant cephalopod like Monstro, for example, but it has a Fin Fang Foom-head at the tip of his tentacles, or a giant-size Man-Thing with the hands of Mangog and the headdress of Zzutak.

Kid Kaiju summons his monsters and, a too-brief battle later, the hybrids are defeated and Max Frankenstein jet-packs away, while the final panel includes a close-up of the spine of Anatomy of The Monstrous, allowing the reader to see that it's marked "Volume 1 of 10."

I know I don't speak for the broader Marvel comics-reading audiencethe most excited I got during any part of Iron Fist season 1 that didn't have Jessica Stroup on-screen was when we saw Danny's stickers of the old Marvel Monsters under a desk in Rand headquartersbut I would be happy to look at drawings and cross-sections of another 90 Marvel monsters.

They could skip the framing sequence and go right to a Superlog and friends art collection as far as I'm concerned, though.


True Believers: Hulk—Devil Hulk #1 (Marvel) This is a reprint of 2000's Incredible Hulk #13, by writer Paul Jenkins, pencil artist Ron Garney and inker Sal Buscema. It's labeled as "part 2" of a story entitled "Snake Eyes," so we're missing the set-up, but most of the action is easy enough to understand. This is one of those stories that takes place almost entirely within a character's mind, and so in the "real world" Bruce Banner is strapped into some kinda machine, seemingly fighting for his life while, in his mind, he tries to recruit and rally various past Hulk personas of him to help him fight against what I guess is the giant, snake-like "Devil Hulk" seen on the cover. At one point, Banner explores a cave full of various malformed Hulks of all shapes and sizes, and, in the very back, behind them all, is an even more serpentine Hulk, although it is more of a regular Hulk size than the kaiju-sized one that Joe Fixit, Professor Hulk and OG Hulk are battling.

While the organizing principle of these reprints seems to be the first appearance of various Hulks, I suspect this one is included not just because of the Devil Hulk, which gets referenced quite a bit in Al Ewing and Joe Bennett's ongoing The Immortal Hulk, but also because this idea of a head-space full of Hulks that Banner can rummage through seems to play a part in the series as well (The last trade I read, for example, featured Bruce Banner summoning Fixit's mind into his own puny body in order to survive a close-quarters encounter with a cyborg super-assassin).

Jenkins' doesn't seem to do anything too noteworthy with the concept here, at least in this 22-ish page chunk of his run, but I did enjoy seeing Garney's work from this period, earlier than any other Ron Garney pencil art I've seen, and seeing what Garney and Buscema look like when they work together. The answer? Pretty good. Their art looks pretty damn good together.


True Believers: HulkMindless Hulk #1 (Marvel) This reprint of 1984's Incredible Hulk #299 by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema and Gerry Talaoc follows a Hulk so consumed with rage that he is, as the new sub-title indicates, all but mindless. In fact, he doesn't even say anything other than variations of "RRRRRR" and "GRAAARRGH!" until about the half-way point. That's when he says his first word, "Smash!" and resumes speaking, albeit in his most caveman-like manner.

The already in-progress story is that Doctor Strange's foe Nightmare has been able to manipulate The Hulk, and is in the process of sending him to smash Strange, a task that requires occasional prodding, as Hulk's so easily side-tracked. The issue follows him from the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel to 177A Bleeker Street, as he fights his way through a huge SHIELD operation meant to stop him (lead by Gabriel Jones, and including Bruce Banner's then-girlfriend Kate Waynesboro, the latter of whom I had never heard of).

Strange is ultimately able to half-cure The Hulk, stopping him from smashing his sanctum sanctorum with some kinda force field and using his magic to set The Hulk loose on Nightmare in his dark dimension, but leaving The Hulk "a mindless monster in truth now," a monster strong enough to jump away to cause trouble in the next issue...which is collected in Incredible Hulk: Regression, according to the tag added at the end of the last page.

There's some really quite fine art in here, and Buscema's Hulk has a more ape-like appearance here than he often seems to have elsewhere, a similarity urged along not just by the facial features, but also the more prominent ears and long arms. Buscmea also does a particularly fine job on the character's rage-twisted face, including an image of The Hulk practically foaming at the mouth (This was, remember, 1984, a few years before having mouths full of spit was considered "cool" in superhero comics).

Mantlo's narration is very much of the era, and thus has a certain dramatic charm that can hover between poetic and purple, buzzing back and forth between the two depending on the line. The story benefits from its simple structure, of The Hulk basically just raging from Point A to Point B. Given the character's simple nature, it works in the context of a Hulk comic where it might not have been so effective in another title.


True Believers: HulkJoe Fixit #1 (Marvel) This is a reprint of Incredible Hulk #347 from 1988, back when I suppose it's at least possible that the weird headdresses the ladies on the cover are wearing might have been in style. The work of writer Peter David, pencil artist Jeff Purves (whose name I don't think I've ever encountered before), and inkers Mike and Valerie Gustovich, this issue apparently introduces The Hulk's "Joe Fixit" persona, that period of time when he was 1) gray, 2) smart and 3) a mobster who liked to wear fancy suits from all-big-and-tall productions of Guys and Dolls.

David's script for the issue makes for a good stand-alone read, and it is carefully-enough constructed that there's a degree of mystery and suspense over who this Joe Fixit person really is, as the Hulk isn't fully revealed until page 17 (The cover of the issue rather spoils that surprise, but then, I suppose anyone reading a comic book entitled The Incredible Hulk would have assumed the Hulk was going to show up at some point during the proceedings).

The real protagonist seems to be Las Vegas casino owner and cartoon gangster Michael Berengetti, who we follow through the course of an evening of work. When an out-of-towner expresses his desire to move in on Vegas, Berengetti rebuffs him and then Mr. Fixit must be called in to protect his boss Mr. B from a small army of gun-wielding toughs.

When Fixit first appears, he looks a bit like the Kingpin in a topcoat and hat, but eventually his true identity is revealed when bullets start bouncing off of him. There's a kind of neat reversal of the traditional Hulk story in here, in which Fixit fears losing control and having his other form come out (that form being Bruce Banner, of course), and there's a scene of Fixit essentially having a little anxiety attack about the prospect of transforming, and then struggling to hold the transformation back (I'm not sure if David was the first to flip the Hulk premise like that or not, of course).

Purves' art is adequate and communicates the story well enough, but it doesn't have a particularly strong identity or style, and didn't do much more than translate a prose script into comics form, although there is something appealing to the misshapen, almost Frankenstein-like look of this version of the Hulk (which had appeared previously, if not quite as fancily dressed).

The one part that didn't sit quite right with me was the repeated intimations that this is a Hulk that fucks:
At one point, there's discussion of how Fixit is becoming grumpy, and how the best way to make him happy is to give him a woman. I don't know if the woman Marlo will become become a recurring character in the run that follows, but there's a weird tension in the comic where it sure seems like she's meant to be a prostitute that Mr. B's girlfriend Suzy madams for, but there's dialogue indicating that she has a "date" with Fixit, and Marlo tells her friend that Suzy is "always trying to set me up with someone--says she hates to think about a single girl with nothing to do."

(When Marlo arrives in Fixit's room, however, it seems pretty clear to both of them that she's there to have sex with him). The above panel indicates that she enjoyed their date, and while this isn't the first time I've seen a joke about The Hulk's big penis, um, it's not really an aspect of the character that is particularly interesting to me. Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned, but I prefer a Hulk who keeps his ripped purple shorts on, I guess.


True Believers: HulkRed Hulk #1 (Marvel) Hey, it's one I've actually read before! This reprints 2008's Hulk #1, the series launched by Jeph Loeb Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines that introduced a new, red Hulk. Loeb set it up as a mystery, and the solution to that mystery still irritates me to this day, owing to the fact that it kinda sorta cheated, or at least bent the rules, of how Hulk transformations were traditionally understood to work.

It was weird reading this recent issue among all of these other, far older Hulk reprints, because it really drove home just how much less comic you get these days. I spent a fraction of the time reading this that I did on all the others. There are just 67 panels in the whole 21-page story, no page of which has more than five panels on it. There are two single-page splashes and two two-page splashes. Written in the artist-friendly, bombastic splash page-and-cameo style of Loeb's Superman/Batman run, several arcs of which were drawn by McGuinness, there's not much to it other than a couple of weird mysteries a Marvel fan would probably want to know the answer to, and, in that regard, at least, this seems to be a good "ad" for Hulk By Jeph Loeb: The Complete Collection, which the last page says this is continued in. (On the other hand, the particulars of the status quo of the Marvel universe might be a little baffling to readers walking into this issue cold, though).

The body of The Abomination has been found in Russia, and the villain was seemingly badly beaten before being shot repeatedly. Doc Samson, She-Hulk, Iron Man, Maria Hill and General Ross are trying to figure out who killed him, but the clues don't quite match up. It seems like The Hulk did it, but the Hulk is supposed to be dead at that point...additionally,  the Hulk doesn't use a gun, doesn't emit radiation constantly and isn't red, a color that a child who witnessed the event keeps repeating over and over.

The Winter Guard show up, and there's a fight.

And then there's a surprise cliffhanger.

While I didn't like some aspects of the mystery at the core of this storyline, and the book would very quickly get really weird, I still think the idea of a red Hulk was a good one, and Loeb certainly deserves props for coming up with an extremely marketable variation on a decades-old theme.

And McGuinness, of course, was born to draw superheroes posing and fighting.


True Believers: HulkThe Other Hulks #1 (Marvel) I have the cover story to this reprint in at least three formats already, including a previous installment of the True Believers dollar reprint program (It had previously run in 2017's True Believers: Kirby 100thGroot #1), but really, what's one more? That story, "I Was A Slave of The Living Hulk!" was from a 1960 issue of Journey Into Mystery, and it was definitely the work of Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, as a signature on the title page attests, but the comic had no credits, and neither does this reprint, although Stan Lee and perhaps Larry Lieber likely scripted it. In other words, some of the guys who made this comic also went on to create the later, more famous Hulk that this month's True Believers are all dedicated to.

As you hopefully already know from reading itor, if not, because you have a very good memory and remember reading my review of the earlier True Believers reprint of the story—the so-called "Living Hulk" is the the giant, mouth-less, orange, furry Muppet-armed Xemnu, who arrived on Earth in a crashed spaceship and was revived by Joe Harper, a small-town electrician.

A small-town electrician who, I suspect, also has super-strength, or else how could he have loaded this giant creature onto his truck...?
Anyway, he charges up Xemnu, who has mechanical parts, so is perhaps half robot and half Muppet, and he immediately learns that the visitor had escaped from a prison planet and now, using his immense psychic powers, is going to enslave all humanity and force them to build him a rocket ship that is so big and so powerful that when it blasts off it will destroy the entire planet. Xemnu, of course, leaves Joe Harper un-enslaved, as a reward for reviving him, and he even promises to take him along with him into space, as a sort of pet.

And this is his undoing, as Joe Harper is able to save the day. Man, what a strange place the Marvel universe was in 1960! There weren't any Avengers or mutants, no Spider-People or Fantastic Fours. Captain America was frozen in ice, and Namor was wandering around, an amnesiac, bearded hobo. But the world didn't need superheroes to save it back then. A plucky small town electrician was more than equal to the task of repelling alien monsters.

The 13-page Xemnu story is followed by the five-page "I Made The Hulk Live" from 1960's Strange Tales #75 (although Taboo, "The Thing From The Murky Swamp!" was that month's cover monster), drawn by Dawn Heck, and maybe scripted by Lee or Lieber (there isn't even a signature attached to this story). This is basically the sort of mid-century sci-fi story with a "twist" that we tend to associate with The Twilight Zone now. After a gorgeous splash page of a giant metal robot, referred to in the narration box as "The Mighty HULK!" (they still haven't landed on "incredible" yet, I guess), menacing a gas station. From there, we meet a short guy who is pretty angry about his height, so much so that, in the second panel he appears in, he's thought-ballooning his vengeance: "I'll show them! One day I'll have my revenge on them all!"

He channels his short man's rage into becoming a scientific genius and then working in a remote laboratory in the woods, attempting to invent a growth serum. When that fails, he builds himself a giant robot to pilot, the hulk of the title. He outfits it like a bunker, apparently planning to live in it forever, but, well, there's that twist, you see.

Sometimes we don't need superheroes or small town electricians to save the world; sometimes the villains accidentally save us from themselves through their own tragic character flaws.

This was a dollar well-spent, even though I've read one of these two stories repeatedly. I think I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I'd like nothing more than an ongoing series from Marvel reprinting stories like these for a $1 a pop.


BORROWED:


Amazing Spider-Man: Hunted (Marvel Entertainment) This is the fourth collection of Nick Spencer's so-far, so-good run on Amazing Spider-Man, but, for whatever reason, it's not labeled as such. The first three volumes were all labeled Vol. 1, 2 and 3 (in addition to having By Nick Spencer after the title of the comic), but not here. Looking past it, the numbering resumes with Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 5. (There is a "4" on the spine, though, so that's something, I guess).

It may have something to do with this "Hunted" storyline being somewhat bigger than the past story arcs, given that it played out not just in eight issues of ASM, but it also spilled over into four special, "extra" issues of ASM that were labeled Amazing Spider-Man #16.HU and so on, but, if that is the reason, it's not a great one. This certainly reads complete unto itselfor, at least, as complete unto itself as most any Amazing Spider-Man comic can so many decades after the book's launchbut it is the climax of several sub-plots that have been running throughout the book ever since Spencer relaunched it, and continues to move another sub-plot forward.

I'd say that Marvel's unfortunate labeling makes this more challenging to read in trade than serially, but then, there are those weird ".HU" issues, each of which turns out to be a sort of solo side-story featuring a character in "Hunted" that may or may not actually be all that important to the proceedings (Black Cat, The Gibbon, The Lizard and The Vulture). Having now read them, I can deem which were really worthwhile to the overall story and which weren't, but were one deciding what to buy off the rack, there was really no way to tell whether they were going to be important or not.

Spencer writes all four of them, so that would have been an argument in favor of reading 'em all; Greg Land was responsible for all of the covers of the ".HU" issues though, so that would have been a reason to avoid 'em all. I guess buying the trade means one need not make those decisions on one's own (The Gibbon issue, for example, is extremely unimportant to the proceedings, but Spencer and artist Ken Lashley provide an elegiac, genuinely affecting life story of The Gibbon, who seems like the only one of the many animal-themed villains that is definitely killed in the hunt).

The plot is the very one that Spencer has been teasing for a while now, and seemed to be crystal clear by the end of volume 3, although there are layers and twists to it. Kraven The Hunter has hired Arcade, Taskmaster and Black Ant to create an impenetrable force field and stock it with most of the Marvel Universe's villains who bear the names of animals (Spider-Man's rogues gallery contributing many of them, given how full of animal guys it is). He isn't hunting them, but rather a bunch of rich "big game" hunter assholes, the sort he had been hunting in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, are invited to hunt them, seemingly safely by piloting super-robots in the shape of Kraven created by Arcade. I say "seemingly" because, as you might assume, it's all a trap to essentially wipe-out the hunters and the hunted, but Kraven has plans bigger, weirder and more dramatic than even that.

Trapped inside the park is Spider-Man, who was knocked out and dressed by Kraven in his black costume, and Kraven also has The Black Cat and The Lizard's son held captive. So while Spidey's trying to break out while trying to save a bunch of bad guys who are simultaneously trying to kill him (and growing increasingly desperate to do so, as he begins having visions of MJ in peril), The Lizard is trying to break in to save his son. And there are, obviously, several wild card characters. And Kraven's son and chosen heir is there, although Kraven keeps him completely in the dark about the real reason he's there.

So it's really the best kind of big superhero epic, one with a simple but compelling elevator pitch premise, but it also features some rather byzantine planning by the boss-level supervillain, through which the writer synthesizes decades of character continuity and different writers' takes on the characters to do something new, but that feels natural.

I should probably stipulate that I have never actually read "Kraven's Last Hunt," so the references to the events of that story, and what seem like they are meant to be allusions to it didn't impact me the way they were likely intended to impact longtime readers, and I am ill-equipped to determine whether the choices Spencer made with the character make sense with that story or not. I mean, I'm mostly familiar with Kraven from Squirrel Girl, and Spencer seemed to do a fine job of honoring Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Derek Charm's Kraven while also rationalizing how that guy could also be an evil supervillain both before and after hanging out with Doreen and the gang.

The artwork is, as is to be expected in such a big story told in such a short time, fairly all over the place. Regular Amazing Spider-Man artists Humberto Ramos, Ryan Ottley, and Chris Bachalo all show up, with Ramos doing the most pencil work (about a third of the collection, all told), while Gerardo Sandoval, Iban Coello, Cory Smith and a half-dozen or so inkers join the aforementioned Lashley in drawing this thing. For the most part, the style is pretty consistent; Ramos, Ottley and Bachalo's work is hardly identical, but it's all in the same aesthetic ballpark. The only real visual clashes come in the form of character designs. Bachalo's fantastic Lizard design which, again, looks like a real lizard, only bipedal and giant, is the odd one out among the more dinosaurian takes.

Anyway, I rather enjoyed this, and it seemed like another great offering from Spencer and company, but, as a casual Spider-Man reader, I am curious about how any more ardent Spider-Man fans felt about it.


Batman Vol. 10: Knightmares (DC Comics) Almost all of the seven issues in the latest collection of writer Tom King's run on the title are devoted to an extremely familiar, even tiresome conceit: Batman has been exposed to The Scarecrow's fear gas, and is running a gauntlet of his worst fears. King, however, is a writer who seems to be as interested in form as anything else, and so the information that Batman has been strapped down and pumped full of fear gas is communicated in dialogue of sorts; it takes most of six issues before we get an image set outside of Batman's head, and actually see him on the table. The individual issues of this arc each represent a different, individual nightmare, and each is drawn by a different artist.

Because of that, the pacing is unusual; what might normally have taken part of a single issue or story arc instead takes 140 pages, spread over the course of four months (Batman publishes twice-monthly, but this arc was interrupted for two issues to make room for a Batman/Flash crossover tying into the events of King's own Heroes In Crisis miniseries). It read just fine in collected format, of course, and it's actually great fun to see the sudden and dramatic shifts between artists in each issue, as the book basically becomes an artist-focused Batman anthology for a half-dozen issues, but I imagine it would have been frustrating to hell to read serially, with a month between chapters of Batman trying to fight his way out of his nightmares, with the reader knowing that it is a fight that lasts (at least) seven rounds.

When we last left the Dark Knight in Batman Vol. 9, the Flashpoint Batman appeared in the Batcave behind him. This volume opens with Batman appearing to attempt to solve the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne for young Bruce Wayne, but it turns out we are inside the fantasies of "Master Bruce" the weird, kinda lame villain that has been one of King's few, minor additions to Batman's rogues gallery during his time at the helm of the book. That issue's drawn by Travis Moore.

When we first get inside Batman's head, he is in the process of awaking to find himself the captive of Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert's Professor Pyg a relatively new Batman villain who really seems to have caught on (he was first introduced in 2007). Held in what appears to be a meat locker of some sort, it's basically an issue-long fight scene drawn by Mitch Gerards. Throughout, the only words come in the form of Batman's thoughts in narration boxes, as he tries to puzzle out how he got there and why things don't seem to make sense, particularly why he can't hear Pyg's voice even though he knows he's talking. It's in the last panel that he realizes this is a dream. Though labeled "Knightmares, Part 2," this seems to be the actual first issue of the arc (Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it seems like it should be the first issue to me).

Let's tick through the rest quickly. The next issue is drawn by Kings on-again, off-again Batman co-creator Mikel Janin, and finds the ending of Batman #50 going somewhat differently, with Catwoman showing up on the rooftop at the last minute just in time to marry Batman after all; John Constanine keeps appearing and disappearing throughout what follows, though he's just a mental creation of Batman's own subconscious, there to remind him that this is just another dream, even if it seems more pleasant than the previous ones.

Next, the great Jorge Fornes shows up to draw an issue in which The Question (Vic Sage model) interrogates a cigarette-smoking Selina Kyle, who tells him a story about how they first met and one of their early team-ups (which Fornes' David Mazzuchelli-esque art is perfect for) and The Question calls bullshit on Catwoman's bullshit rationale for leaving Bruce Wayne at the altar/rooftop (It's nice to see that King himself seems to realize that it is bullshit, but it might have been nice if he left some clue that he meant for her rationale to be transparently idiotic at the time, rather than waiting like 12 issues). Although Catwoman, Batman and The Question get the most panel-time, Two-Face briefly appears here (as he did in the previous, Janin-drawn issue), and there's a two-page sequence that gives Fornes the opportunity to draw a large swathe of rogue's gallery: The Penguin, The Riddler, Mister Freeze and The Joker.

Next, Lee Weeks and Fornes draw a mostly silent issue that is just one long chase between Batman and The Joker, the focus of which appears to be as a showcase for the artists. They don't disappoint, but, again, this sort of indulgent issue would have driven me nuts if I paid four bucks for it it and waited 14 days for it. The only words are copious sound effects, the stuttering of the bartender at "Porky's" (introduced in King and Weeks' weird-ass Batman/Elmer Fudd crossover) and then Batman's narration on the last page.

Next, Amanda Conner, Dan Panosian, John Timms and Janin all join King for the story of Lois Lane throwing a bachelorette party for Catwoman in Superman's Fortress of Solitude, while Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne hang out in Wayne Manor, trying to relate to one another as Clark and Bruce, rather than Batman and Superman. This is obviously a funny issue, and much of it is quite effectively, although I think all of the best bits are those between Clark and Bruce (The best bit? A background gag that plays out in the fourth, fifth and sixth panels of the fourth page, involving Alfred's souffles. How does this qualify as a nightmare? It's...complicated, but a large part of it just seems to be a nightmare in contrast to reality, as Batman sees what his life could have been like if things happened differently. It is on the last page of this issue that we finally see Batman hooked up to some kind of machine, in "real life."

Finally, the story resumes with the final issue of the trade, drawn by Yanick Paquette. Broken into two distinct sequences, Batman and Catwoman dance, as Batman explains to Catwoman how he realized what is going on and how he's going to break free and, in the process, they once again discuss why she left him: Here she offers a better, realer rationale, one that actually makes sense for both of their characters, rather than what Catwoman wrote him in her letter which, I guess, retroactively or not, was her attempting to let Batman down easy (Whether what he articulates is actually his greatest fear or not, I'm not entirely convinced, as Batman is clearly capable of loving others, even if one can argue quite convincingly that he's incapable of loving another person romantically in the way that husbands and wives love one another). Interspersed between the scenes of their dance and Batman their conversation are scenes, as their costumes and the settings change to reflect their history together, are scenes supposedly set in the real world, in which Flashpoint Batman Thomas Wayne and a nude Bane spar with one another, and seem to come near to killing one another. (I don't know, I don't like Bane's chances against Batman; if he can't defeat a 60-70-year-old Batman, how's he going to take the mid-thirties-ish Batman?)

In some ways, I think this may be the best volume of the book to date, or at least the strongest collection. But then, that owes a lot to the fact that it's a series of only loosely connected stories, in which King is free to make observations about Batman and his version of Catwoman and some other supporting characters, without having to do much in the way of a story.

The more pages of King's Batman I read, the more convinced I am that King is a great comic book writer, but a relatively poor storyteller.


Goblin Slayer Vols. 2-6 (Yen Press) Despite my reservations about the first volume, I was still eager to see what happened next and, as you can see, I obviously liked Kousuke Kurose's manga enough to keep reading it, and to fairly fly through the remaining volumes. As soon as the second volume, the most tough-to-read aspects of the first volume recede from the fore—the violence is still there, but the second volume has no rape in it—perhaps because the point about how terrifying and evil goblins are was so thoroughly made already. With that out of the way, the creatures' capture and use of human (and, now, elf) women continues, but it's not presented anywhere nearly as graphically or at such great length.

By the second volume, the series really seems to have found its sense of humor, and settled on a direction, treating Goblin Slayer's chosen vocation of goblin-slaying as a source of humor as well as a defining characteristic. At the opening of volume two, an unusual party of silver-ranked adventurers arrives at the guild: A high elf archer girl who looks straight out of an RPG, a dwarven magic user whose fashion choices suggest a Eastern origin more than a Western one, and a big, towering humanoid dragon-like guy referred to as a "Lizardman." The first two fall pretty squarely into type, particularly in their constantly teasing enmity for one another, but the latter is a rather unusual character. Although he looks like a dinosaur man, he's dressed in vaguely Native American style, including face-paint, fringe-heavy pants and jacket that suggest buckskin, and even a full feathery headdress.
While the elf is an archer and apparently a fighter or ranger, in the old Dungeons & Dragons sense, and the dwarf a magic-user, the Lizardman seems to be some sort of multi-class character. He has spells, many of which seem necromantic in nature, but he also fights with bladed weapons. I don't know; D&D has changed so much since the late-eighties/early-nineties when I was really up on it.

The party comes to the guild seeking a person they call by various names: Orcbolg, Beard-Cutter and, of course, Goblin Slayer. That last name summons him immediately, for as soon as they get the word "Goblin--" out, he appears and starts asking about goblins. Joining with the title character and the priestess, they set out to clear a particularly large goblin nest that has been established in a sort of inverted underground tower, close enough to elven lands to draw the attention of multiple races, and for various leaders to put together such a rag-tag group, human-free campaign party.

Far lighter than the first volume, the second volume gradually introduces the new characters and their quirks, plays up Goblin Slayers' difficulties in relating with others for humor, and a good 50 pages pass before they see their first goblin. There's a surprise waiting for them at the bottom of the nest, though, as the relatively easily dispatched—if devious—goblins are apparently serving under a non-goblin master: An ogre.

This ogre seems to be more of an Eastern one than a Western one, as not only is he physically formidable, towering twice the size of the Lizardman and wielding a metal club far longer than any of the characters, but he's also has magically abilities, and is well on his way to slaughtering the whole party...at least until Goblin Slayer is forced to use a secret weapon that is teased in the earliest pages of this volume. He if, of course, unhappy to have wasted it on killing a single non-goblin foe rather than wiping out a nest of goblins with it, but the whole quest sets up a sharp contrast between him and the other characters, and their different views of what they do. While he finishes off the ogre while dissing him, forgetting his name and then dismissing him as less powerful than goblins anyway, the elf thinks about how much she dislikes Orcbolg, and how adventures are "supposed to be fun...The joy and accomplishment of finding and learning new things... That's an 'adventure' to me. He doesn't understand those feelings at all. He just keeps hunting goblins."

Her narration falls over contrasting images, of herself happily emerging from a passage underground into the light, and Goblin Slayer in the middle-distance in an almost all-black panel, his back to the reader, plunging his sword into prone goblins to make sure they are dead.

The elf doesn't really have a name...in fact, none of the characters do. It's not so noticeable in the manga itself—the dwarf, who directly addresses her most often, calls her "long-ears"—but the short prose stories at the end of each volume drives that point home. There she is referred to as "High Elf Archer", and the rest of the party is called "Dwarf Shaman," "Lizard Priest"** and, of course, "Priestess" and "Goblin Slayer." That aspect of the story works far better in comics than prose, where dialogue is attributed via the lines drawn around it, rather than by having to name characters whenever they talk. Of course, prose is apparently Goblin Slayer's home medium, so perhaps that's a truer Goblin Slayer, even if it doesn't appeal to me (There are also a series of "light novels;" I've been ordering these from other libraries, and about half of the time I get a light novel sent instead of a manga collection, as they appear indistinguishable from the covers and in the library catalogs).

Volume 3 begins with a three-page sequence in which a little gray-haired boy, whose face is never seen, is talking to his older sister, and then we see Goblin Slayer awaking from sleep and, presumably, that dream, to find that that boy was Goblin Slayer. Although Kurose frames the sequence—and, indeed, all future sequences featuring Goblin Slayer sans helmet—so that the reader never actually sees his face, it turns out that the character is apparently completely human, male and not horribly disfigured. In fact, he's apparently quite handsome, which might help further explain why the girl at the farm and the lady that works the desk at the adventurers' guild are so keen on him.

This volume is fairly self-contained, in terms of the plot. Goblin Slayer finds clues that goblins have been scouting out the farm he lives at, and, when the girl and her uncle that own the farm refuse to leave, Goblin Slayer goes to the guild and urgently requests all the help he can get in defending the farm from what he suspects is an entire horde of goblins, numbering 100 or more, and lead by a "Goblin Lord," which is the goblin equivalent of one of the guild's higher-ranked adventurers.

His friends all come to his aide, and rally the rest of the guild, leading to a pretty huge battle sequence involving pretty much every character in the series so far, plus many minor heroes given short scenes appearing here for the first time. It's the most Lord of The Rings-y sequence in the comic so far, both in scale and in some of the specifics, like the goblins riding upon wolves to attack (another tactic, "meat shields", is something Tolkein never would have dreamed up, and Peter Jackson wouldn't have put to film). Goblin Slayer himself tackles the Goblin Lord, with an invaluable assist from the priestess. Oddly, the Goblin Lord is given a fairly extensive origin sequence, in which we see how he rose from a regular, lowly goblin to his current station; a sequence that seems to involve him fighting and killing a manga Conan at one point. Pressed to repay his debt to the adventurers' who helped out, Goblin Slayer takes off his helmet when asked, to the shock of all at the after party.

In Volume 4, Goblin Slayer must repay his debt to the elf archer, and so he joins their party again for what is meant to be a "fun" quest exploring ruins, but they manage to find some goblins there after all. Eventually, their party journeys to a big city, where they are given a particularly involved mission from Sword Maiden, a high-level heroine that seems to be something between a superhero and a pope in her faith, the same faith that the priestess shares. Apparently goblins have been appearing within the big city in which Sword Maiden's temple is based, and so Team Goblin Slayer explores the massive sewer system beneath the city, finding unusual and unexpected threats, like goblins sailing in boats and a huge albino alligator. The book ends with a rather dire cliffhanger, as our heroes are trapped in a room that goblins are piping poison gas into and, when they finally burst in, our heroes see this horde is also being lead by a goblin champion, a huge specimen who seems to be more than a match for any of them.

Volume 5 has the team as close to death as they have ever been as the champion and his horde overwhelm them in the dead end they're forced to fight in. Goblin Slayer is badly hurt, and unable to help as the champion grabs the priestess and proceeds to take several gory bites out of her, starting to eat her alive. The elf is held down and stripped nude, about to be gang-raped by the goblins. The dwarf and Lizardman will simply be killed when they fall, rather than raped or eaten...the benefit of being male in this milieu, I guess...? Goblin Slayer manages to rally, of course, and rather brutally and gorily defeats the champion, sending him in full retreat.

This being a setting of magic inspired by games, neither the priestess nor Goblin Slayer actually die, despite suffering mortal wounds. Instead, they are magically healed. (In the case of Goblin Slayer, the "miracle" that saves him isn't the sort of minor spell that the priestess generally casts—like "minor heal" or "protection"—but a "resurrection miracle" performed by Sword Maiden and the priestess, something that is accomplished by "sleeping with a virgin." Indeed, Goblin Slayer awakes in bed next to the naked, sleeping priestess...so apparently they've had sex, although it seems to have been purely a matter of life and death, as their relationship isn't drastically changed at all by the off-panel event.

Once everyone's been magically healed, they head back underground for a less horrifying adventure, finding a magical mirror that seems to serve as a goblin portal, guarded by Goblin Slayer's answer to a Beholder in D&D. Our hero decides to refer to it as "Giant Eyeball," and this particular conflict that involves more problem-solving and creativity than the desperate fighting of the previous one.
The volume also reveals Sword Maiden's history with goblins, and we see a bit more of Goblin Slayer's youth, as he was apparently trained to fight by a goblin when he was still just a child.

In the sixth and final volume (that's been released so far, anyway), the team finishes off the goblins dwelling under the city and their rematch with the goblin champion that almost killed Goblin Slayer and the priestess earlier, and they do so in a very thorough, very unexpected and unusual way that involves the entire team and the magical gateway mirror. The remainder of the volume is a relatively low-key, climaxing with the girl at the guild desk asking Goblin Slayer on a date...and Goblin Slayer accepting. I guess we have to wait until volume seven to see how that goes, though...


War of The Realms (Marvel) It was with great trepidation, bordering on reluctance, that I finally sat down to read the collection of this six-issue crossover event series. I felt more-or-less compelled to read it, as I have all the Marvel events since Civil War, in part because I feel like it's part of my "job"*** to pay attention to these sorts of things, and in part because I knew the War of The Realms was such an expansive event that at least a few of the Marvel comics I continue to follow in trade would tie into it (Avengers and, surprisingly, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl; I don't think Runaways, Immortal Hulk or ASM do), so I'd run into it eventually.

As for why was a bit reluctant, it wasn't just that some of these events turn out to be real clunkers, even when the concept is simple and solid, or if the creators are great at what they do and have a pretty good track record, as writer Jason Aaron and artist Russel Dauterman do (although that is always a concern). See, in this particular case, Aaron has been building to this event series for...well, for years now. A glance at Wikipedia confirms that he's been writing the Thor characters regularly since 2012, and I've read...lets see...eight issues of it, circa 2014 and 2015. I've picked up on some details via osmosis, but I still don't know what Nick Fury Sr. said to Thor to make him suddenly unworthy. I don't know how Jane Foster got the hammer, or how she lost it. I don't know where Thor's new arm came from. And so on. If this event was gong to be the climax of some seven years of storytelling, well, I was afraid I might need to have done all the homework first.

Thankfully, I did not. Aaron has obviously been building up to this forever, as some of the villains introduced at the outset were ones I had first met/been reintroduced to during those eight issues five years ago, and I certainly didn't know what lead to what, but the book was thankfully, surprisingly easy to follow. I suppose much of that comes from the relative simplicity of the plot, which is this.

Malekith, the dark elf, has declared war on the nine realms of Norse mythology ten realms of the current Marvel universe's version of Norse mythology (Heven, the realm of the angels created by Marvel to accommodate the integration of the Neil Gaiman-created one time Spawn character into their Thor mythos, is the tenth, if you haven't been keeping up either). He and his cabal of Thor badguys have been conquering the realms one at a time, building an army of all the bad things that live in each of those realms, while saving Midgard/Earth for last.

Malekith sends weird-looking elven assassins to take out various still-standing Asgardian characters here and there, and then launches a full-scale invasion of New York City, pitting armies of ice giants, elves, trolls and other monsters against all the superheroes for an everybody-fights-everybody sequence that is the starting point for the story.

From there, it's a fairly straight-forward story. The heroes retreat to Avengers Mountain after a pretty decisive defeat, one that kills off all of Asgard's valkyries, and then the involved heroes split into various teams to do various tasks. One team must go to Asgard to secure and hold the bifrost bridge, so they can move between realms. One team must go to the realm of the dark elves to take over their "black bifrost," limiting their ability to move between realms. One team must travel to the land of the frost giants to rescue a stranded Thor. And another team, apparently dubbed the "War Avengers", travel around the world fighting various armies, as the bad guys start staking out continents to call their own.

Meanwhile, Thor himself goes through a dramatic rite of passage that echoes that of his father, ultimately facing off against Malekith in a neat climax in which he games a "rule" set forth that says only Thor can enter the arena Malekith made for him.

As is typical of Aaron's Marvel writing, there are a lot of very big, very cool moments, chief among them being blind superhero Daredevil stepping in to fill the boots of blind Asgardian Heimdall to master the bifrost, being promoted to "The God Without Fear"; Punisher Frank Castle battling dark elves with bullets and conversing with light elves, about as far removed from his regular milieu as imaginable; Odin donning an Iron Man-esque suit built by Tony Stark, Shuri and the dwarf Screwbeard to become "The Iron All-Father"; and a rather novel application of Venom's symbiote.

In addition to the cast of the Thor booksThor, Loki, Odin, Freya, Jane Fosterand Aaron's Avengers team, Wolverine, Spider-Man and the aforementioned Daredevil and Punisher play the biggest roles, although Dauterman gets to draw a pretty sizable chunk of the publisher's currently active heroes (and, obviously, a ton of Marvel heroes who don't even manage a cameo in this series will appear in the hundreds of pages of tie-in material).

As surprising as how easy-to-follow the story was for a casual-ish Marvel reader who has been all but ignoring the Thor books is the fact that Dauterman is the only artist on the series, apparently requiring no fill-in artists, inkers or assists. This is all just Aaron, Dauterman and colorist Matthew Wilson. And Dauterman is a really good artist, making this the best-looking Marvel event series in...well, that I can remember, anyway. Generally, the art fluctuates rather widely as different artists with different styles are involved and, often, the involved artists tend to be ones whose style isn't to my taste, but not here. This is a pretty damn gorgeous book.


REVIEWED:


Dracula, Starring Mickey Mouse and Frankenstein, Starring Donald Duck (Dark Horse Books) As stated in my Good Comics For Kids review, these two are the best of all of the Disney-by-way-of-Dark Horse's classic literary adaptations I've read, but I'm not entirely sure if it's simply that their creative team of writer Bruno Enna and artist Fabio Celoni are head and shoulders above the other creative teams, if they just have a better approach to the adaptations, or if these specific works themselves just lend themselves better to these sorts of parody/reimaginings. I suspect those are all factors, though. I liked these two quite a bit, particularly the Dracula one...despite the fact that I prefer the Disney Ducks to Mickey and his supporting cast in general.


Rey and Pals (Chronicle Books) If you've read any of Jeffrey Brown's various Vader books of cartoons, then you know what to expect from this one, in which he turns his attention to Episodes VII and VIII. This is essentially his Darth Vader and Friends book, only covering the current trilogy instead of the first one.


Operatic (Groundwood Books) I stopped doing best of the year lists some time ago, but if I still did them, this is definitely one that would be under consideration for inclusion. In addition to reviewing it for Good Comics For Kids, I discussed artist Byron Eggenschwiler and writer Kyo Maclear's translation of sound and music into comics art in this book, so I don't have much more to say about this at this point. It's a great graphic novel that's not exactly a coming-of-age story, but rather about transitioning from one stage of growing up to the next, and is illustrative of various inspired ways to convey difficult-to-convey things in the medium. It's well worth a read.


Superman of Smallville (DC Comics) The one thing I didn't much care for about this book, which is the Art Baltazar and Franco team's contribution to DC's middle-school DC Zoom-branded line (and yes, despite the publisher's announcement that they were axing the imprint as a distinct entity from DC Comics in general, it still bore the "DC Zoom" logo and labeling) is that Baltazar used a blue line to outline the characters' white teeth. You can kinda see it on the cover, and it's a bit more distracting in a few panels within; sometimes some characters appear to have something blue in their mouths, but it turns out to just be their teeth. Not sure why he didn't go with black, or if he's always used blue, and I've just never noticed before because the smaller size of these pages (and thus these panels) from his regularly-sized comics comic work made it less noticeable.



Other than that tiny nitpick, this original graphic novel about Superman's time in Smallville was a great deal of fun, and in the same vein as most of the pair's previous DC Comics work. Cues seem to have been taken from the Smallville TV show, as Superman's classmates include Lex, Lana and Pete Ross, the last of whom looks like the actor who portrayed him on Smallville, even though Lana is a fair-skinned ginger, as per the comics, and, when a second Kryptonian arrives in town, it's referred to simply as "The Blur."


Wildheart: The Daring Adventures of John Muir (Yosemite Conservancy) This winning biography of the amazing John Muir came as quite a surprise to me, as I had never heard of writer Julie Bertagna, artist William Goldsmith or the Yosemite Conservancy as a publisher...although they really are a publisher of sorts, regularly publishing Yosemite and Muir-related books. That surprise factor might have had something to do with why I liked it as much as I did, but it is certainly a very well-constructed biography—I got a bit teary when it came to portraying Muir's death, to be perfectly honest. I've read a biography of Muir before, but I feel like this one included details I wasn't aware of before, and many more jokes than I would have expected. It's a pretty great comic, and worth seeking out if neither the title, nor the writer, nor the artist nor the publisher were on your radar, as they weren't on mine.


*I'm genuinely surprised that we haven't seen more of this character since, given the perennial popularity of The Joker.

**The deities of his people are, amusingly, dinosaurs. When he casts his first spell, tossing a handful of bone shards and run stones before him to raise a "Dragontooth Warrior," which appears to be an obedient lizardman skeleton that performs tasks for him, like running a wounded elf captive out of the goblin dungeon or, later in the second volume, fighting the ogre alongside the other warriors, he prays, "O horns and claws of our father, Iguanadon."

In volume six, when he casts a spell that temporarily increases his strength, he prays, "O Proud and Strange Brontosaurus!"


***Well, the "job" after my day job, anyway