Saturday, March 14, 2020

A Month of Wednesdays: January 2020


Aquaman Giant #2 (DC Comics) This was a total impulse buy, purchased at the shop on the second Wednesday of January, when I made a special trip to pick up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #101, the debut of Sophie Campbell on the title, and Daphne Byrne #1, a new miniseries drawn by Kelley Jones. It was one of a handful of such impulse buys, and, now that I'm thinking about it, I think this is an instance which is a good example of why comic shops are important and why it's important for publishers to try to get readers into them every once in a while. Like, the only reason I bought this and a couple of other comics is because I happened to be in the shop that day. I didn't pre-order them, nor would I have sought them out in trade later.

This $5, 100-page giant is about 30% new material, and thus probably well worth the price, even if you've read the reprints already, given the current cost of comic books. The two new comics are a 16-page Aquaman story and an eight-page Aqualad story; the former is by writer Michael Grey, pencil artist Aaron Lopresti and inker Matt Ryan, while the latter is by writer Dave Wielgosz, pencil artist Jose Luis and inker Adriano De Benedetto.

The Aquaman story finds our hero investigating a mountain of illegally dumped barrels of toxic waste, surrounded by sick, dying and mutated sea life, and then immediately stumbling into a conflict between the dumpers and the Sea Devils, who have re-invented themselves as machine gun-toting non-lethal eco-terrorists/vigilante environmentalists. Self-contained and evergreen, it's a perfectly okay story, although the environmental aspect seems somewhat dated. Like, between warming oceans, increased salinity, dying coral reefs and veritable islands of plastic waste, there are more timely and urgent environmental threats for Aquaman to deal with in the 21st century's oceans...although I suppose this more old-fashioned dumping scenario more easily allowed for the Sea Devils' involvement and the resulatant action sequence.

The art is pretty great, although I didn't quite like the way Lopresti drew Aquaman jumping out of the water and onto the deck of the ship; he seemed to float or glide, alighting more like Superman or Wonder Woman coming in for a landing, rather than landing there as hard as gravity might pull a big man like him down. Lopresti also gives Aquaman a short-ish and well-trimmed beard that gave him a more Christ-like look than I'm used to seeing applied to the character.

The Aqualad story is a little odd. The Aqualad in question is, of course, the Jackson Hyde version, the one that Geoff Johns introduced in Brightest Day to better resemble the "Kal" version from the Young Justice TV show, who then needed re-introduced shortly afterwards, when Johns' own Flashpoint ended up rebooting the DC Universe. In this story, Jackson has just clumsily hit on his friend in a restaurant when he's attacked by The Electrocutioner, a minor super-villain I have some small amount of affection for based on the fact that he was one of the earlier ones I had met (He appeared in the three-part "Electric City" arc of Detective Comics in 1992, by the Robin miniseries team of Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle). The remainder of the story is a big, long fight scene between the pair, with bits of Jackson's origin story interwoven in flashback and dialogue. It's an introduction to the character, yes, and it's done through hero vs. villain combat, so it's pretty standard super-comic storytelling, albeit awfully Bronze Age in its feel.

Following the new material are three reprints: 2013's Justice League #15, 2018's Mera: Queen of Atlantis #2 and 2017's Teen Titans #7. That's the first chapter of Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis and company's Justice League/Aquaman crossover "Throne of Atlantis," the second chapter of a Mera miniseries by Dan Abnett, Lan Medina and Norm Rapmund and part two of "The Rise of Aqualad" arc from Benjamin Percy, Khoi Pham and company's Teen Titans. Checking online, I see Aquaman Giant #1 included a prologue to "Throne of Atlantis", Mera #1 and "Rise of Aqualad" part one, so it appears that rather than reprinting Aqua-stories at random, DC is serializing story arcs in the pages of these Giants, which is...not a bad way to re-sell comics that have already been sold in a variety of ways. (As for me, the Justice League issue was the only chunk of this giant I had previously bought and read, so I definitely got my money's worth out of this purchase.)

I wish these giants were better advertised and solicitedI always end up buying them on impulse or when I find them in the wild, rather than ordering themand I further wish they were rated, and contained more kid-friendly material. Most of this is probably okay-ish for a lot of kids, but there's enough blood and gun play that I'm not comfortable passing it on to the children of strangers, which is what I like to do with these giants when I've read them...

Daphne Byrne #1 (DC) This is my first experience with a "Joe Hill Presents Hill House Comics" comic, the horror novelist and occasional comics writer's new "pop-up" horror comics imprint from DC Comics. I purchased it exclusively for the artist, because the $4.99 price tag on the first issue of a six-issue miniseries is otherwise ridiculously high: It's a 22-page story, and there's a two-page back-up, which is chapter eight of a story being serialized throughout all of the comics in the line, I guess. But hey, it's a Kelley Jones comic, and if I'm going to allow a publisher to over-charge me for a comic, it's going to have to be one drawn by my favorite living artist.

Jones is paired with writer Laura Marks, whose work I'm not at all familiar with, perhaps because she's new to comics (In a two-page introduction from Hill, he says she's written for TV shows The Exorcist and Braindead). For what it's worth, you can't tell this is her first comic book, so she's either a natural, or working with an experienced pro like Jones makes her seem like one. That, or, perhaps, some combination of the two.

Set in late 19th Century New York City, the book is about a strange little girl whose father has recently died. Her mother visits a spiritualist in order to make contact with her late husband, and she drags Daphne along with her. Meanwhile, otherworldly figures seem drawn to Daphne, like a pupil-less beggar who clutches at her arm, revealing his own forearm crawling with worms, or long shadows of arms that aren't there stretching across the walls in her home, or a face in her bed sheet, or, ultimately, a young boy whose voice she hears in a dream, and lures her beneath a cemetery, where she's faced with a horde of Jones-style animated corpses, one-part scary and one-part silly.

So far, at least, it's basically little more than a collection of horror movie hijinks applied to an interesting Victorian setting, which allows for seances and Jones to draw elaborate settings and costumes. But, this being a Jones comic, every panel is off-kilter, weird and baroquely detailed, and each drawing rewards lingering on.

The first issue shipped with two covers, neither of which is by Jones. That seems like a shame. His style is so particular, that putting almost anyone else's art atop interiors he drew seems like false advertising, in the same way that a Jones cover over someone else's interiors does. I got the variant cover, by Yasmine Putri; it doesn't loo a bit like Jones' art, of course, but it's a pretty nice image nevertheless.

Dollar Comics: The Brave and The Bold #197 (DC) This $1 reprint of 1983's The Brave and The Bold was apparently published because it involves one version of the on-again, off-again Batman/Catwoman romance, but I bought it because it featured The Scarecrow, my favorite Batman villain (and one of my favorite comic book characters in general).

Well, that, and the fact that it only cost a buck.

Beneath the Jim Aparo cover, featuring a solid interpretation of the villain (in which he looks more human than usual, right down to his un-gloved, definitely human hands) and Batman and Catwoman's capes forming a heart of sorts, is an Alan Brennert-written, Joe Staton and George Freeman-drawn "special tale of The Golden Age Batman," premised as a chapter in Earth-2 Bruce Wayne's autobiography (Remember, this being 1983, this was pre-Crisis, and the conceit of Earth-2 was that it was the the alternate world where the Golden Age had just kept going, so here Batman, Superman, Robin and Wonder Woman's were peers with the Justice Society of America, and a generation older than the versions of them appearing in Batman, Detective, Superman and so on...).

After a page of a pipe-smoking Bruce Wayne with a Dick Sprang-square jaw pecking away at a type-writer, we learn of how The Scarecrow inadvertently played matchmaker between Batman and Catwoman. He hits the Dark Knight with a special version of his fear gas that draws out Batman's autophboia, or fear of being alone (It feels like a good 50% of Scarecrow's dialogue in this issue is listing the names of types of phobias, followed immediately by their defnitions). So Robin and Batwoman disappear right before his eyes, and every time Batman goes to look for a friend or ally, he can't find them either.

Ultimately, Batman decides to turn to an enemy, Catwoman, correctly presuming she wouldn't disappear...although, as they become closer throughout the night of the case, in which Batman frantically hunts for The Scarecrow all over a college campus, she too starts to disappear.

I hate to question Brennert or an editor of Len Wein's stature, but, man, it seems like there should have been some mention of the fact that Batman is so affected by the fear gas that he can't even feel his friends if they touch him or see evidence they leave for him, as after they seem to disappear from his vision, they disappear from the story. I'm not sure why Robin doesn't, like, slap Batman or pinch him, or why Batwoman and Alfred don't leave him notes or otherwise try to get his attention. Nor do I understand why Robin and Batwoman don't try to catch The Scarecrow themselves.

But hell, it was 1983, and I guess if these wren't written exclusively for kids, the audience would have still been assumed to include more kids than grown men and women.

The Scarecrow plot is a decent-enough pot-boiler, and the Batman/Catwoman relationship stuff is similarly decent-enough, although the former is more evergreen than the latter, and I think the never-ending reboots make stories set on previous versions of Earth-2 harder and harder to parse, as the meaning of the name "Earth-2" seems to change every few years now, and it means different things in different media.

As for what pleasures the story itself may offer, however, I enjoyed reading and re-reading the art, and seeing Staton, who has a pretty particular style, imitating that of other, past DC artists, sometimes coming up with an interesting compromise style between his own and homages. Most of the book, for example, looks like a Sprang/Staton fusion, but, on the first page alone, for example, we see a Sprang-ish Bruce Wayne at a type-writer, a Batman and Robin that more closely resemble more polished versions of Bob Kane's first designs and renderings of the Dynamic Duo and, in a group shot of the JSA, a Sprangy Batman leads a charge of various character, including a half-flying, half-striding Superman that has the basic shape and feel of a Wayne Boring Superman.

The comic ends with an exhortation to "Read more team-up tales in the Batman: The Brave & The Bold graphic novels," but I kinda wish there was a more specific one, filled with the rest of this Batman's autobiography, or, at least, tales of this Batman produced from around the same time (Although I suppose there probably are collections of those stories from that time period, they just aren't named very specifically in the last panel of this comic).

Gal Gohan Vol. 1 (Seven Seas Entertainment) Are you familiar with the term "gyaru", or "gal"...? I was not, but having encountered it in two manga recentlythis one and another I'll include in a future postI went to look it up. It's not terribly important, as this first volume of Marii Taiyou's cooking/romantic comedy manga gives one all the context one needs to understand the look, behavior and popular perception of its heroine Miku Okazaki, "the school's number one gal." For the purposes of the book, it basically just means she dresses as revealingly as possible, she's flirtatious and acts as if she's sexually available, she's fundamentally un-serious and has little or no aptitude for school work or intellectual pursuits. She is, apparently, the stereotypical "dumb blonde" of mid-twentieth century American men's humor (Wikipedia tells me gyaru style and fashion is rumored to have been inspired by Pamela Anderson's character on Baywatch, though?).

The core of the manga, though, is that Miku Okazaki is not what she seems, or at least, there's more to her than that. She approaches the school's new, mild-mannered home ec teacher Shinji Yabe to ask his help with baking cookies to give to all of her teachers, as she's failing every class, and the principal suggested such a gesture might help them justify passing her. She screws that up, of course, but just as Yabe dismisses her, saying he will cook them for her, he sees how it saddens her, and that every other teacher has similarly treated her as someone fundamentally unable to learn and do things for herself and, then, changes his mind, working with her until she gets it right.

This inspires him to try to have a better relationship with the student body, and start an after school cooking club. Of course, Miku is the only one who joins, and her presence chases off all other would-be for in one chapter, when two of her fellow gals notice that the teacher is kinda cute and fun to tease, so they join for the day, driving Miku mad with jealousy. Obviously there's romantic tension between the pair, although whenever the straight-laced seems to take Miku's advances seriously, she immediately deflates them and insists she's just kidding.

And so each chapter, referred to as a "dish," involves the pair making and/or eating a meal together, jokes about their clashes in personalities and misinterpretations of their student/teacher relationship, and the expected will they, won't they suspense (There is little in the way of should they, shouldn't they, of course, which will likely strike many Western readers as weird, or unhealthy; if this were an American comic, featuring American characters, I know I would find it a lot ickier than I do, for cultural reasons that would take longer to unpack than I wish to here now).

Anyway, it's quite well-made, and effective at meeting its ambitions.

Justice League #38 (DC) This issue, part nine of the "Justice/Doom War" story line, features a pretty good example of a thing I see far too often in my super-comics. It occurs on the above page, the second page of the issue, which I've scanned and used in place of Francis Manapul's cover. It takes place primarily in the third panel. The image there, drawn by Daniel Sampere and Juan Albarran, who were apparently called in to help artist Jorge Jimenez finish drawing the issue and get it out on time, is technically fine. It no doubt fulfills whatever writer Scott Snyder's script indicated should happen in that panel: Green Lantern John Stewart fires a powerful blast of energy from his ring, driving Lex Luthor into the ground. But, while a good-enough image that conveys the required information, there's not that much feeling to it, it's not as good an image I as a reader want at that moment in the story.

In other words, it's a fine image, but it's not an awesome image, and when I read super-comics, particularly this super-comic, I want to be excited, I want to be blown away by almost every panel on every page. I want to feel like I did when I read, say, Tom Scioli's Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe or the latest Kelley Jones-drawn Batman comic. This is good. It's just not good enough.

Like, if the creators are going to have Green Lantern John Stewart explain that almost every single time we've seen him use his ring, the most powerful weapon in the universe, and certainly every time we've seen him use it over the course of the previous 37 issues of this series, what we were seeing was him pulling his punches, but this time, this time he was going to give Luthor everything he's got, then I'm afraid I want to see a lot more than John simply striking a pose like he just threw a punch, and an aura of energy around his fist about the size of his own body, emitting a beam. I want to see John folding himself in half, being knocked off balance by the force of his own blast. I want that blast to look like it was coming out of a gigantic cannon, like something on a battleship or a Star Wars ship. I want to see that shit in long-shot, lighting up the sky, shaking the city. It should look like an atom bomb going off.

It doesn't. And it gets a single tiny panel on a six-panel page. More space is afforded to The Flash punching Luthor two pages later, and two or three times the page real-estate of that is devoted to The Flash simply running towards Luthor. Wonder Woman stabs Luthor literally in the back, then cuts his torso in half like she was chopping an apple, and that got a splash page (with four smaller inset panels).

So, like I said, this is fine, but it's just fine.

It's emblematic of the issue, really. Enacting their new plan to show the Earth's populationvia psychic visionthat the League believes in them so much they are going to go down fighting the now god-like Luthor, John, Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman all attack Luthor one at a time, each landing a blow and then being batted away, with each attack and counterattack being accompanied by a verbal framing of one kind or another (Luthor gloats that seeing the Leaguers try so hard warms his heart, for example, then Wonder Woman cuts his chest open and and says, "What heart...I can't find one").

Eventually, Martian Manhunter and Hawkgir's son from a now-impossible future Shayne makes the most decisive attack, helping to release his kinda sorta father from Luthor, who had absorbed him to become the current "Apex Predator" version of himself. This is presented as a big revelation, getting a splash page ending in which the newly released J'onn refers to himself as "...THE MARTIAN MANHUNTER" in a big red and green font, but it's not exactly a surprise, as J'onn's been talking to Luthor semi-regularly over the course of the last few issues.

Justice League #39 (DC) Well, that was unexpected. Writer Scott Snyder's Justice League story, sometimes written with his occasional co-writer James Tynion IV, has sprawled across 39 issues, an annual, a four-issue prequel miniseries and a couple of one-shot specials bookending the "Drowned Earth" crossover with Aquaman, and it ends in this issue. With a cliffhanger. With no resolution to the years-long, hundreds-of-pages story line in which the League had to contend with a damaged reality, Lex Luthor and his Legion of Doom and the dark goddess Perpetua.

After suffering a defeat during the course of this issue, in which Perpetua attempts to banish the core Leaguers from "the story," and they find themselves exiled and powerless on the moon, wearing matching black leotards, only to be given one more chance by The Quintessence, the League rushes off into an open doorway for "One last fight" and...that's the last panel of Snyder's Justice League run.

The next issue of the series will feature a brand-new creative team, telling a completely different story.

That was a pretty unexpected way to end a run, particularly since there wasn't even a "to be continued in..." or "To be concluded soon" or "Look for Whatever In May" box. There was a house ad with the word "Next" on it, teasing next issue's "new story by an all-star creative team" and the Hell Arisen series written by Tynion, along with the (then-)cryptic "AND THEN...GET READY FOR THE ENCORE!" above the names Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, the pair primarily responsible for the first New 52 Batman run, Dark Nights: Metal and Batman: Last Knight on Earth. At the time I read this comic, in January, DC had already solicited comics through April, so wherever Snyder intended to resolve his Justice League story, the single longest Justice League story arc of all-time, the publisher had yet to announce it, but it couldn't pick up anywhere until May at the earliest.

Like the length of the arc itself, I found this ending both impressively brave and incredibly frustrating...the former as an observer of superhero comics, the latter as a reader of this comic. Like, I had never seen such a thing happen beforeand part of me wonders if it might not have been cooler to simply leave the story here, with the implication that the League would of course win the day as they always do, without actually ever resolving itbut then, there's probably a reason for that. As a comic book series, as a run on an ongoing series of Justice League series, as a story, Snyder's epic-length Justice League Vs. Legion of Doom story ends with a record scratch.

Now, since I've first read this issue, DC has of course announced Dark Nights: Death Metal, a sequel to Metal, the event series which this volume of the Justice League spun out of, which means Snyder's Justice League was, what, killing time while Capullo's schedule freed up...? This comic was just a line connecting the points of Metal and Death Metal...? It's...not terribly reassuring. At the climax, The Phantom Stranger, Ganthet and The Spectre caution the League that if they enter the big, glowing doorway that they are presented with, they will "bring everything to bear...give reckoning to every story, every event throughout history. The ones you know...and the ones you do not."

This sure sounds like a continuity-rejiggering Crisis then, but, of course, so too did the last Snyder/Capullo Metal, and Doomsday Clock, and Convergence, and DC Universe: Rebirth. The DC Universe has been in a more-or-less constant state of reboot since Flashpoint, and we're getting damn near that event series' ten-year anniversary at this point. It's all so exhausting. I'm fairly certain that this one will take, given DC's simultaneous announcement of a series of one-shots detailing the "new" history of the DC Universe across generations, but, on the other hand, Dan DiDio just suddenly left the company and, as I said, the last event series by this same team seemed like it was positioned to do the same thing and didn't really do so, at least, not in a big, broad, permanent-ish way that gave readers a sense that anyone on the other side of the comics had decided on just what the hell the shared setting's parameters were going to be for the next year or so.

That confusion is felt in this issue. This iteration of The Quintessence includes the post-Flashpoint/New 52 design for High Father and Hera, who has apparently taken her dead husband's place (although he's still alive, as seen in Young Justice, a comic book specifically referenced three pages later). The Wizard Shazam is the pre-Flashpoint/New 52 one, the old, white guy, rather than the dark-skinned one that appeared in Geoff Johns' "Shazam" back-ups from the previous volume of Justice League and throughout the publisher's confused comics featuring the once-thought important characters like Pandora and The Phantom Stranger (this Stranger seems like the previous iteration, not The New 52 one, by the way). And the Spectre looks to be the classic version, not the one we saw appearing in Batman Eternal, which was written by...Scott Snyder.

There's a scene in here where Ganthet tells the Leaguers that Perpetua had imbalanced the DC Universe and introduced an element of darkness that influenced it in ways they may not have even been privy too, and his dialogue appears over four panels showing events from...elsewhere.
Based on what I see when I read the solicits, I would guess they refer to Event Leviathan, Doomsday Clock (or possibly Shazam?), either The Terrifics or Whatever They're Currently Calling The Jason Todd Book and Young Justice, but these are just semi-educated guesses. If I weren't someone who writes about DC's solicits on a monthly basis, this would have just felt completely random to me.


Guys, I can't tell you how happy I am that DC has devoted so much time, energy and talent into the original graphic novels that were originally intended to be for their DC Zoom and DC Ink imprints, before they decided to simply market them as "DC Comics." As the DCU's constant churn becomes increasingly alienating, even to a relative die hard like me, it's nice to know there's a better, easier way to access adventures featuring their greatest characters, and often by more exciting creative teams than you can find keeping the monthlies running on time...

This, by the way, was the last ongoing DC comic I had on my pull-list, which isn't really a "list" anymore. With Snyer's Justice League run kinda sorta concluded, IDW's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the only ongoing that I'm having my comic shop pull for me anymore. I never really meant to become a trade reader, but that's pretty much where I am now. Weird.

Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker: The Manga (Viz) Between Marvel Comics and IDW Publishing, there is no shortage of Star Wars comics available these days, but I enjoyed this unexpected one far more than any Star Wars comic in recent memory (And, if I'm being honest, any Star Wars anything in a good long while). I think that's due to two main factors.

First and most obviously is the manga style and tankobon format. The artwork in this anthology, coming from four different artists with very different styles, is extremely far removed form that of the more uniform style of Marvel's Star Wars comics, where the publisher's regular superhero artists try to balance their own personal art styles with fidelity to the appearance of real-life actors and the franchises props, vehicles and settings, often resulting in comics that feel stiff and stilted. These comics could scarcely look more different. Each is highly stylized, they appear in black-and-white and, most strikingly, because the storytelling itself is manga style, there are action scenes that last longer than the standard Western pop comic's panel or three, so that the story flows from image to image almost like, dare I say it, a movie.

Secondly and more subtly, it was refreshing to read a couple of Star Wars stories that were, with one exception, Luke Skywalker solo stories. Whatever other flaws the original trilogy of films might have hadflaws that grow dimmer and harder to see the more Star Wars films and related media get madeone thing they had working in their favor was their simplicity. Sure, there might have been some bland aspects to the Luke character, but he was nevertheless a rather simply-drawn hero figure, and, as the trilogy progressed, he became an increasingly mysterious, powerful and appealing character. During the era of the first trilogy, Luke was the last and only Jedi, and the special-ness of the last and only Jedi knight in the whole galaxy is something that can now sometimes seem easily forgotten, given all the Force-users and light saber-wielders and knights and Sith Lords of the expanded universe and then the prequel trilogy, with its dozens of Jedi.

Now when I return to the original Star Wars, I see Luke's place differently than I would have in the 1980s and '90s, and there were passages of this book, wherein he is seen through the eyes of others as a truly legendary figure, with remarkable powers unlike anyone else's, that reasserted that original way of seeing the character. I'm not entirely sure why these stories reminded me of that view in a way that all the other Star Wars comics and novels haven'tafter all, Marvel has had at least one ongoing series set during the period of the first film running for a couple of years nowbut, if I had to guess, I would assume it was because of how different the book looks and feels from more standard Star Wars fare, and that it is coming from a different place with a different intent. That is, it's a standalone book of mostly standalone stories featuring the character, rather than part of a line of books from a publisher pumping them out as quickly as possible.

At any rate, I liked this quite a bit.

It is apparently based on a 2017 novel for younger readers by Ken Liu that was released during the build-up to The Last Jedi film (Looking it up on Amazon, I see that it's branded with the "Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi" tag). I haven't read it, although from what I've just read about it online, it seems like the manga excises the Cantebury Tales-esque, everyone-tells-a-story-on-our-trip framing device, as well as two of the prose book's half-dozen stories.

The first story is "The Starship Graveyard" by Akira Fukaya and Takashi Kisaki. It's told from the point-of-view of a young Imperial gunner on a Star Destroyer that is attacked by a Rebel fleet. During a brief battle, the gunner thinks about how scary Skywalker and his Force powers are, and ultimately his ship goes down. He survives by taking an escape pod, but he's badly injured, and he's rescued by a mysterious cloaked and hooded figure on the surface of the planet below. Delirious with fever and infection, the gunner wonders if the apparent rebel who is rescuing him is really Skywalker himself or not, and, if so, why he's going to the trouble of splinting his legs, dragging him on a makeshift sledge across the sands and feeding him. The figure's true identity remains secret to the gunnerwe get a pretty good look at his face at the end though, which seems to imply that it is Lukebut, when he's directly asked whether or not he's Luke Skywalker, he replies "We're all Luke Skywalker." Interestingly, the way Kisaki draws the gunner and the Skywalker figure, the former gradually looks more and more like the latter as the story goes on, and, unable to shave, he begins to grow a bit of a beard like the figure has.

The second story is "I, Droid" by Haruichi, and this one made the biggest impression on my initial reading of the book, as it features something I have never seen in a Star Wars comic...or Star Wars movie or novel or anything else. Having spent about 40 years regularly visiting that shared-setting, that in and of itself is unusual. At the risk of spoiling it, I will say this: It involved C-3PO in an action sequence.
This story, narrated by a sturdy and powerful construction droid named Zeta, is set mostly deep within a mine, where droids toil to extract rare precious gems, while the acid dripping from the stalagmites gradually eats away at their metal bodies, destroying them. Zeta is given an override chip that transforms him, against his will, into a slave-driving enforcer, and he's also given new weapon-like arms with which to urge his fellow slaves on. Among these droids, which include many models familiar from the films, is R2-D2.

 Eventually, a familiar-looking, gold-plated protocol droid shows up to rescue him, and he's shockingly successful...but not only does he rescue R2, he sets all of the droids free, saving them from their slavery and even helping to heal Zeta and give him new arms now that he won't need his slave-driving ones.

The next story is "The Tale of Lugubrious Mote", by Subaru (an artist whose previous Star Wars related work was a Japanese web comic adaptation of Claudia Gray's Leia, Princess of Alderaan novel). The narrator is the titular mote, a particularly talkative space flea whose species lives in a symbiotic relationship with monkey-lizards, and this mote's monkey-lizard was Salacious B. Crumb (that's the Muppet with the irritating laugh that hangs out with Jabba the Hutt in Return of The Jedi, if you're not on a first name basis with with the members of Jabba's court). The story re-tells the opening section of Jedi then, but from the mote's perspective. He first befriend's Leia during her time as Jabba's prisoner and, when Luke falls through the trap door and into the Rancor pit, he leaps atop Luke's scalp, telling him "Don't worry. You've got this." To the bug's surprise, Luke doesn't even ask who's talking to him, thinking that the mote is the voice of a Jedi, telling him to use The Force, in much the same way that Ben Kenobi's voice told him to at the climax of the first film.
So scenes from Jedi are reenacted here, in Subaru's style, with commentary from the mote which at times paints Luke as a bit of a dope, obviously, but also accurately portrays him in a heroic fashion that impresses the mote. Sprinkled throughout are images that refer to the newer films, as now Leia knows the events of, say, Rogue One, and we know what Luke will look like near the end of his life, as the mote's final line "I hope he has learned to think for himself, instead of just trusting voices in his head" appear next to image of the Luke of Last Jedi. (This is the story I tweeted some images of manga Chewbacca from previously, by the way; man, I love all manga Chewbaccas, but Subuaru's is one of the best.)

The final story, "Big Inside," is the only one of the four from a creative team or manga-ka not making their English language debut here, Akira Himekawa, the pen name of the ladies behind the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and other Legend of Zelda manga. It's also the most straightforward of the four, telling the sort of story that could have been told in a standalone comic, as its depiction of Luke isn't as far removed from the standard one, nor is its point-of-view all that unusual. Here, Luke picks up a young biologist, and they inadvertently end up inside the body of a gigantic living organism, which they explore together. In the process, they discover signs of what appear to be proto-Jedi, or at least people who had knowledge of The Force, but called it by a different name.

Though the least surprising of the four stories, due both to the story itself and the fact that I've encountered this creative team's art previously, this one did feature what I think might have been the funniest exchange in the whole book. Nursing the student back to health, Luke gives her food and water, and she asks him where he found water in their bizarre environment. "I was once a moisture farmer," he answers, "I can get water out of anything."

That's probably Luke's least explored skill.

Honestly, I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed this comic. If you've any interest in Star Wars comics, I'd recommend this one over any of the others as the most interesting place to start.

Superman Smashes The Klan Book Two (DC) The second issue in this winning miniseries by writer Gene Luen Yang and artists Gurihiru fulfills the promises of the first issue. The heroics and super-feats on displaySuperman leaping over a river, diving to rescue a drowning boy, confronting Klansmen, jumping from a building just before it explodes while carrying would-be bombing victimsall feel like the sort of old-school, classic elements one would have found in the earliest Superman adventures, owing, of course, to the fact that this series is based on a story line from the 1940s Adventures of Superman radio show.

Yang is doing a far more elaborate job of adapting the notorious "Clan of The Fiery Cross" than simply translating it from a radio script to a comics script, though. The series is very much a meditation on bigotry in all its many forms, with Superman himself experiencing the inner anxieties and exterior attacks that someone from somewhere else may be subjected to, whether they are a Chinese-American girl moving from Chinatown to a nice Metropolis neighborhood, or a space alien adopted by a Kansas farming couple.

Yang continues to explore Superman's origins, with some scenes set during his Smallville childhood, and continued visions of his birth parents, who appear as Superman himself thinks aliens might appear, complete with green skin and antennae. Meanwhile, Roberta Lee and the kids from Unity House go to the movies, where they take in Captain Desmo Vs. Genghis Ahkim, The Intergalactic Conqueror, where we see yet another shade of institutional racism that Roberta is sensitive of, but others likely didn't even notice...that is, that the villain in the stupid movie is hideous Yellow Peril-style sterotype (I'm assuming he's based on Ming The Merciless, but I imagine Flash Gordon's nemesis wasn't the only alien warlord who was suggestive of Orientalism in the days when my grandfathers were young men). (UPDATE: Actually, Captain Desmo and Genghis Ahkim are both extant, if extremely obscure, DC Comics characters, having appeared in anthology comics that Superman would eventually appear in, Action and Adventure).

There's so much good stuff in this issue. There's Perry White and his Daily Planet's journalism-as-activism, Chuck Riggs' pretty blonde mother's more gray than black-and-white statement made in passing ("Don't get me wrong. Those Klansmen are the worst sort of criminals! I hope the police or Superman throw 'em behind bars forever! But is it really all that bad to want to live among only your own kind?"), Roberta's kicky red coat sewn from Superman's cape (evoking '90s Superboy's leather jacket with the S-Shield on the back), Golden Age Lois Lane walking around a research lab like she owns the place in order to get a story, a Clark/Lois meeting over coffee in which she tells him off and he tells the reader how much he loves Lois, Lois pulling out a pen and notebook and asking for an interview when a Klansman pull a knife on her...I don't want this comic to ever end.

I sure hope Lang and Gurihiru do more comics in this vein. If not Superman ones, then maybe similar ones featuring Golden Age heroes. Like, I'm fairly certain Gurihiru would do an amazing Captain Marvel. Actually, I kind of want to see Gurhiru draw the whole Golden Age DC Universe...

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #101 (IDW Publishing) I can't tell you quite how long I've been waiting for this comic, but I know it seems like a lifetime ago that artist Sophie Campbell had begun posting her TMNT fan art online and talking about Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's creations, as well as sharing a female ninja turtle of her own creation. That was well before IDW had even acquired the license to publish TMNT comics and launched the fifth volume of the comic, with co-creator Kevin Eastman attached as cover artist and co-writer. And, well, that was 100 issues ago now.

Was it worth the wait...? I'm not entirely sure how to answer that. This isn't the Campbell TMNT I most would have wanted. That would have been an all-new, start-from-scratch version, rather than this continuation of volume 5, which contained several elements I just didn't care for (and which I outlined a long, long time ago, but mostly dealing with the various characters' origins). I will say that I am surprised, maybe even shocked, at how new reader friendly this issue was, considering it begins right where the "City At War" arc ended in issue #100. That is, Splinter had just died, and a "mutagen bomb" had exploded in New York City, mutating a large swathe of the populace into human/animal hybrids like the Turtles and several of the other mutant characters from throughout the series (Hob, Alopex, Rocksteady and Bebop, etc).

Campbell, who both writes and draws the book (Eastman and Tom Waltz share a "Story Consulting" credit), uses these big events as the starting point, so the book seems to be brand-new, featuring a rather radically different status quo than any of the previous four volumes...or other, multi-media extrapolations of the comics (I will here note, however, that it reminded me a bit of the Eastman-less Peter Laird and Jim Lawson fourth volume of the title, the final one from Mirage, wherein the Utrom openly land on Earth and alien life becomes so commonplace that the setting because a new, sci-fi one, and the Turtles are free to be "out.")

The four Turtles—well, five now, counting Jennika, who the Internet tells me was a Foot ninja who mutated into a turtle after she got a blood transfusion from Leonardoare split asunder by the death of Splinter, and, six months later, three of them seem to be in Northampton at the farmhouse again. Leonardo has thrown himself into plants, starting an elaborate green house. Michelangelo is seemingly depressed, clinging to his new friend, a cat named Klunk (I think this is Klunk's first appearance in the IDW TMNT...?). Donatello is doing Donatello stuff, and here that means writing in his journal to serve as the narrator.

And as for Raphael? He tossed away his red mask and left his brothers, and has apparently spent the last six months in the city, now wearing a new black mask, and serving as a crime-fighting vigilante in the quarantined Mutant Town that has sprung up, where all of the mutants are forced to live, a formidable wall keeping them in and humans out (all of which is quickly explained in the the perhaps lazy way of a news report, although Campbell only spends a page on it, and it is further, more fully and better explained conversationally later in the issue).

Raph's accompanied by Pepperoni, the tiny baby dinosaur that first appeared in one of Campbell's earlier comics for IDW's volume 5, here wearing an adorable little winter coat, as it's winter when the story opens (And all of the Turtles seem to be wearing a lot more clothes than I'm used to seeing them in, but then, I guess it makes little sense to be basically nude all the time, especially when it's cold out). They briefly stop in to a shelter of sorts run by Alopex, who was apparently a pretty major character from throughout the previous 100 issues (She's one of the relatively few characters shown in a silent panel of Splinter's funeral), but it's actually Jenny who gets the most panel-time and, being more talkative and less angsty than Raphael, it's through her time in Mutant Town that we learn the most about the current status quo.

Hob's Mutantimals are now something between a gang and a police force, the only authority in Mutant Town,  and seem to be letting that power go to their heads. This issue's action sequences involve first Raphael stopping a pair of them from hassling some mutants (a ferret and a sloth), then Jenny rescuing someone from another pair of them (a raccoon and a platypus), and, finally, Jenny being attacked by a porcupine, which I was extremely excited to see (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, my initial introduction to Eastman and Laird's TMNT, included a cool drawing of a mutant porcupine that Eastman drew; Campbell's resembles it a lot, but has several distinguishing characteristics*).

The person Jenny rescues from Mutanimals is a lizard woman named Mona Lisa and, as odd as it seems given this book's glee at introducing new versions of past TMNT characters from all available sources, she appears to be brand-new to the series. She strikes up a friendship with Jennika, and seems to be on her way to convincing her to try and make a home for herself here in Mutant Town, when that porcupine shooting needles into Jenny.

This issue was definitely not a disappointment, something of which I was quite glad, given how high my expectations were for it. In addition to how well Campbell introduces the characters and the new status quo, making this issue what comics publishers like to call "a great jumping-on point," she is extremely good at drawing...everything.

Her Turtles are strikingly close to the best of the Eastman/Laird versions, at the height of their collaboration on them as co-artists, but much more detailed, capable of a surprising amount of emotion (She also does that thing I really like with the TMNT, where they switch from pupil-less white triangle eyes when their masks are on and they are in "ninja mode," but having pupils when they're masks are off...and/or they are not in ninja mode).

As you've probably noticed from the species I've mentioned, she's also pretty great at picking out interesting animals and drawing them, each panel full of a great deal of thought and care (Note all the characters in the backgrounds of places like, say, Alopoex's shelter,  and the moods and emotions they have, or the various distinguishing characteristics, like the more laconic look on the sloth's face compared to the gritted teeth of his angry-looking ferret friend when Raphael leaps at them, as if it's taking longer for the sloth to register what exactly is going on).

The action is also extremely well-executed. In what is an unfortunate rarity in American genre comics, there's an honest-to-God fight scene in this book, if not quite something form a kung fu movie or a fight manga, then at least a few pages in which combatants strike and attempt to counter, wherein the action in one panel leads fluidly into the actions of the next panels.

As I've already mentioned, this single issue evoked elements of past TMNT comics and media that I liked a lot, and even some I don't really have much affection for, but in a refreshingly pure sort of way, in which it's clear that Campbell is drawing inspiration from the characters' past, rather than cynically dropping Easter eggs and fan service.

I loved the elegant, silent handling of the death of Splinter, focusing on the characters' reactions; the evocation of TMNT Vol. 1 #11's exile in Northampton issue; the way Campbell draws urban environments and rubble, rooftops and water towers and cranes and alleys that evoke the fantasy New York City of 1980s comics more than a 21st century, realistic NYC; the world of mutant fighters and civilians, evocative not only of TMNT Vol. 4's world of aliens, but also Palladium's RPGs, from Other Strangeness to After The Bomb and its spin-offs; the way Jennika commutes by flattening herself  atop rail cars; the disordered mess of April's apartment; the inky lines of the train and of the menacing porcupine mutant; everything about Pepperoni; the sound-effects that look hand-lettered when Jennika fights the platypus and a raccoon.

This was a really great first issue, but, more than that, a really exciting one. I honestly can't remember the last time I was so excited by a TMNT comic, nor the last time I was so excited to read the next issue of a comic. Although, if I had to guess, the last time I was so excited about a TMNT comic, it was probably when I read volume 1's TMNT #50, and the last time I was so excited to read a next issue, it was probably reading Tom Scioli's Go-Bots #1.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #102 (IDW) What's this? Two issues of Sophie Campbell's TMNT run? In the same month?

In this second issue, Campbell continues to lay-out the conflicts among the Turtles themselves and the mutants of Mutant Town, the former conflicts mostly quiet, unspoken ones, the latter conflicts more noisy. That's to be expected, as Raphael is in Mutant Town, rather than with his brothers. A new-to-me character named Sally, a mutant lioness and lieutenant in the emerging Mutanimal army/police force, is introduced, chatting with Raph and the still-adorable, still-dressed-in-a-winter-coat Pepperoni as they patrol the rooftops.

Meanwhile we learn the name of that big, scary, cool-looking porcupine that attacked Jennika and Mona Lisa last issue. Sheshe's a sheis named Diamond, and she's with the Mutanimals...until Sally fires her for insubordination/putting a bunch of quills in Jenny's head. From there, Diamond appeals to the Mutanimals' leader, Old Hob, who is in the middle of some sort of mutant child soldiers-for-supplies deal with The Foot Clan, here represented by that big bird person, Koya. Time spent at the farmhouse in Northampton reinforces the fact that things are still broken between Leonardo, Donatello and Michelangelo, and Donnie alone seems read to try and fix them, so he leaves for the city.

Other sub-plots are referenced, like the guys' relationship with April and a mysterious figure watching the farmhouse, but, for the time being, the focus seems to remain on the schism between Raphael and the rest of his Turtle brothers (and sister, now, although she seems separated from them to a great degree still) and the oppression of the mutants by the Mutanimals.

Campbell seems to introduce some new characters here, too, a trio of mutant weasels which she draws with very nasty teeth.


Marvel Action: Black Panther: Stormy Weather (IDW Publishing) I can't overstate how disappointed I was to crack open the cover of this book and to learn that Kyle Baker was writing it...but just writing it, not drawing it. Baker is easily one of the best cartoonists working today, and his is one of the most impressive and varied bibliographies of any of his peers. I know he's probably most popularly thought of as a "funny" cartoonist, thanks to some of his better-known works, but Baker has range, and he's quite good at drawing in what I suppose one would call a "straight" superhero comic style (With his work on Marvel's Deadpool character probably being the most recent example of Baker drawing in such a style, or at least the most recent example I can think of).

What I'm saying is Kyle Baker on Black Panther would be be amazing, and this little three-issue, $9.99 trade paperback collection couldn't help but disappoint me, as its table of contents all but forced me to imagine a Kyle Baker Black Panther comic while simultaneously emphasizing that this is not that.

Of course, the book does include a Kyle Baker-drawn variant cover image, so at least the prospect of Baker's Black Panther isn't completely consigned to the realm of the imagination.
(There's also a great Elsa Charretier cover featuring the Panther, and a Michael Avon Oeming cover featuring the Dora Milaje.)

So while Baker scripts this 60-page story, it is Juan Samu that handles all of the interior art. And there's not a thing wrong with Samu's art, of course, and, in fact, the worst thing I can say about it is that it's not Baker's, but then, that can be said of every artist. Except for Baker, of course.

This fast-paced story is set entirely in Wakanda's sci-fi cities and jungle outskirts, and opens with the Panther dealing with freak tornadoes and other dangers, all, it is gradually revealed, a side effect of the country's new chief of mining using illegal mining technology to extract Vibranium more quickly. Doing so will destabilize and destroy the country, but he's not terribly concerned with that, being a classic (if obscure) Black Panther villain wearing a weird, shell-like android suit to disguise himself as a Wakandan government official.

What is most memorable about the book is Baker's focus on the Black Panther not simply as a superhero or a king, but as a member of a family, with sister Shuri getting almost as much panel time as he does, and proving integral to saving the day and, as in the film, simultaneously aiding her big brother in his duties while constantly needling him. Their mother Queen Ramonda and the Dora Milaje also have substantial roles.

It's a fun enough offering with dynamic art work, perfectly appropriate for younger readers without pandering to them or alienating grown-up readers like me. That said, I'd still like an all-Kyle Baker Black Panther comic. Maybe Marvel can make that happen...

Komi Can't Communicate Vol. 4 (Viz Media) This is my favorite manga series that I'm currently reading. Manga-ka Tomohito Oda's tale of Komi—the impossibly beautiful, cool and collected high schooler who is so shy she can barely speak, and does most of her communication via writing on a notebook—continues, and we follow her and her growing circle of friends through the end of summer break and the resumption of school. Here Komi attempts and conquers various rites of passage that are completely normal for most people, but big deals to her...and to many of her friends, the best of whom also have various issues in communicating normally with others.

So Komi goes to the melodramatic weirdo Nakanaka's house by herself for the very first time (although Nakanaka ultimately invites their mutual friend Najimi over, and Najimi brings Tadano, and they all play a parody version of Super Smash Brothers). Komi tries to survive a particularly hot, boring day at home with her family. Najimi tricks everyone into coming over to Tadano's house to help her finish her homework. There's a field day at school. Komi visits a Subway restaurant, which is as challenging for her as the Starbucks in an earlier volume, given how much conversation is needed to place an order. Komi, Tadano and friends visit a photo booth. Two new characters are introduced. And, in perhaps the best story in this volume, Yamai and Naknaka try to convince Tadano to teach them how to read Komi's mind like he does.


Diana: Princess of The Amazons (DC Comics) This is a pretty great example of how valuable DC's new original graphic novels for kids and YA readers are. I've grown pretty disenchanted with DC's main Wonder Woman title for much of its post-Flashpoint existence, despite at least trying an issue of each of the new creative teams, but this provides a much-needed, high-quality Wonder Woman story, one that is set during the now little-seen childhood of the character (when she was still Wonder Girl, as she would have been called in the Silver Age or, in actuality, somewhere between Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl, to be as specific as possible). While not meant to be canonical in the strictest sense of in-continuity, shared-setting comics, I think the fact that this is so far removed from particular "Man's World" markers helps it feel like it could really be slotted into almost any version of the Wonder Woman history/continuity.

Also, there's plenty of kanga content, as any and all Wonder Woman stories set on Themyscira should contain.

Little Lulu: Working Girl (Drawn & Quarterly) This is a great collection of one of the greatest cartoonists work on one of the greatest comics characters. Don't miss it.

Transformers: A Visual History (Viz Media) One of the interesting aspects of this coffee table book, for me anyway, was just how much Transformers stuff there has been since I watched the cartoon every day after school and played with the toys, and how much of it I had completely missed. Like, I was obviously there for the original, G1 toys and cartoon (and I read, like, one issue of the comic), and I read the Dreamwave comics, watched the Robots In Disquise anime, and even collected the Minicon sets that accompanied the Armada toy line and eagerly subjected myself to the live action films, and that sounds like a lot of Transformers, but there are whole decades of content I completely missed out on.

Well, "missed out on" maybe isn't the right way to say it, as I obviously don't feel like I've lead a poorer life having not watched BeastWars or played all those video games, but stillthere's just so much Transformers! As for the best Transformers narrative of them all, Tom Scioli's Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe, it is briefly represented in the truncated "Crossovers" section. And that's kind of the great weakness of the book. Because there's so much to cover, everything seems a little too cursory; it's like an introduction to a phenomenon, and there are too-few books to follow up on any of the media or particular iterations one might be interested in. Like, no one seems to have written an entire book on Transformers comics (someone who's not me should get on that, though!), so there's nothing between, say, the section of this book covering them and just, like, reading the hundreds and hundreds of comics for yourself, you know...?


Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

Mona Lisa does in fact predate the current series. She appeared in the recent (starting in 2012) CGI series, though she's vastly different in that. A quick search actually tells me yet another version was on the 1987 show as well, deep in the fourth season.

Caleb said...

Oh, I know she does; I meant to say, and I guess I didn't say it very clearly, that this seems to be her first appearance in this series, which I was kind of surprised by, given how many other characters from various cartoons and comics have been introduced into the IDW TMNT continuity over the course of the last 100 pages. I'll...see if I can clean that up a bit.

Thanks, though!