Wednesday, May 20, 2020

DC's August previews reviewed

With all of the chaos the pandemic has caused the comic book industry, DC's August solicitations contain a whole bunch of resolicits, as books originally scheduled for release in June were pushed back to August. That means that a big chunk of the latest round of solicitations were previously released, and therefore written about by me in the previous installment of the feature (which you can consult, or re-consult here). There are a bunch of new books included, though, so let's take a look and see what we have to look forward to/be demoralized by in August of this year, shall we...? The Nick Derington image above, by the way, is a variant for Justice League #51, which looks like it's going to be an otherwise pretty lame comic.



BATMAN: THE DEMON TRILOGY HC
written by DENNIS O’NEIL and MIKE W. BARR
art by NORM BREYFOGLE, TOM GRINDBERG, and JERRY BINGHAM
cover by NORM BREYFOGLE
What connects Batman and the villainous Ra’s al Ghul? Find out in this collection of three 1980s graphic novels! How did Ra’s al Ghul become the villain that he is? How would a union between his daughter Talia and the Dark Knight benefit him? Why would he want to father an heir? Follow along as Batman lives through and tries to unravel the mystery behind the mind of Ra’s al Ghul!
Collects Batman: Birth of the Demon #1, Batman: Bride of the Demon #1, and Batman: Son of the Demon #1 at their original published dimensions of 8.5” x 10.875”.
ON SALE 09.22.20
$75.00 US | 320 PAGES | 8.5” x 10.875”
FC | ISBN: 978-1-77950-450-0


Breyfogle's fully-painted Birth of the Demon is pretty excellent (I wrote about it at some length here), but I still haven't read the other two books. It seems like it would be nice to have all three of these in the same package, but I would probably need to hold it in my hands before I could decide if I wanted to add it to my book shelves. Hardcover comics over a certain length seem to be pretty fragile to me, although that might be in large part because so many of the ones I see are here at the library, where they're read by dozens of people, and are thus under a lot greater stress than a book an individual might read once.


DARK NIGHTS: DEATH METAL #3
written by SCOTT SNYDER
art by GREG CAPULLO and JONATHAN GLAPION
...
All aboard! When the Justice League launches its assault on New Apokolips, the team’s goal is to free Superman from his solar prison. But it’s all going off the rails when they learn that the Man of Steel is gone for good thanks to the Anti-Life Equation. Plus, the deep secret of the Darkest Knight is revealed—but how much darker could the Batman Who Laughs possibly get? And don’t miss the surprise return of everyone’s favorite wanna be Robin!
ON SALE 08.11.20
$4.99 US | 32 PAGES | 3 OF 7
CARD STOCK COVERS
FC | DC


I have to assume everyone's favorite "wanna be Robin" is Jarro, right...?


DARK NIGHTS: DEATH METAL GUIDEBOOK #1
written by SCOTT SNYDER, JAMES TYNION IV, JOSHUA WILLIAMSON, BECKY CLOONAN, VITA AYALA, CHIP ZDARSKY, and CHRISTOPHER PRIEST
art by DOUG MAHNKE, BECKY CLOONAN, EDUARDO RISSO, KHARY RANDOLPH, and DAN PANOSIAN
cover by YASMINE PUTRI
...
Earth is turned upside down, shrouded in a realm of darkness after the Justice League’s defeat by the cosmic goddess Perpetua. Now the Batman Who Laughs and his army of Dark Knights rule the planet, wreaking havoc on humanity and raining destruction on the world. As Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and other heroes fight to survive in this strange new landscape, one cloaked figure has been observing from the sidelines, creating a guidebook to this new world and its evil leaders in the hope of forming a plan of justice…and penance.
This issue showcases the new factions of Earth and explores the mystery of what happened to our heroes after their battle with Perpetua. How does Wonder Woman, the new queen of Hell, reign over her prisoners? What is Batman doing with the Black Lantern Ring? And what happens when Harley Quinn takes charge of the Wasteland, and finds love in the process? All this and more in this jam-issue exploring the new world order.
ONE-SHOT | ON SALE 08.18.20
CARD STOCK COVER
$5.99 US | 48 PAGES
FC | DC


Chip Zdarsky...? That's...not a name I expected to see attached to a DC event comic. That looks like a pretty interesting creative line-up; I like the work of all of the artists and most of the writers. I assume this will be a series of short stories, as opposed to the sorts of pin-ups and profiles that used to fill many of the pages of the Secret Files & Origins specials DC used to publish.

Re-reading the solicitation copy just now reminded me that this event supposedly occurs right after the completion of Snyder's Justice League run, even though DC kept publishing Justice League with various fill-in teams. I can't help but wonder if Dark Nights: Metal would be more exciting, or at least urgent-feeling, if it began, like, the month after Snyder's last Justice League issue, and if DC had cancelled, or at least temporarily suspended, publishing the series. As is, Justice League will have published what, like at least a half-dozen story arcs by the time Death Metal concludes...? And that would have been the case even without the pandemic's screwing with the creation, publication and distribution of comics...


DARK NIGHTS: DEATH METAL LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHTS #1
written by SCOTT SNYDER, JAMES TYNION IV, JOSHUA WILLIAMSON, PETER J. TOMASI, WARREN ELLIS, GARTH ENNIS, DANIEL WARREN JOHNSON, and FRANK TIERI
art by TONY S. DANIEL, JIM CHEUNG, JO√čLLE JONES, DANIEL WARREN JOHNSON, RILEY ROSSMO, and FRANCESCO FRANCAVILLA
cover by TONY S. DANIEL
...
The DC Universe has become engulfed by the Dark Multiverse, where demons dwell and reality is overrun by monstrous versions of the Dark Knight, all ruled by the Batman Who Laughs. In this collection of short tales, learn the terrifying secrets of these new Bats out of hell and other creatures of the night like Robin King, whose origin is just the worst! Plus, read about the secret buried beneath Castle Bat, the sentient Batmobile, and…how did Batman turn into a dinosaur?
ONE-SHOT | ON SALE 08.04.20
CARD STOCK COVER
$5.99 US | 48 PAGES
FC | DC
...


Ellis and Ennis...? This special also has a pretty great line-up, including some of my favorite writers and favorite artists.

I am getting a real Spider-Verse vibe with some of these Batmen this time around...is that just me...?


DETECTIVE COMICS #1025
written by PETER J. TOMASI
art and cover by KENNETH ROCAFORT
...
“The Joker War” explodes with an assault on Wayne Enterprises! The Joker has taken control of Waynetech R&D—and with it, all the weapons hidden in its sublevels—plus Lucius Fox as a hostage! The Joker and his clown-masked henchmen are now using Wayne Enterprises as an armory, using sophisticated 3-D printers to produce weapons to rule Gotham City...but Batman and Batwoman might have something to say about that. It’s all-out action in this nonstop issue!
ON SALE 08.11.20
$3.99 US | 32 PAGES
...
FC | DC
...


Pretty solid cover by Kenneth Rocafort on this one. I particularly like the shape of Batman's cape. Does anyone ever draw his cape with that shape when it hangs behind him when he's at rest, or does it only ever take on the appearance of bat wings when he's leaping through the air...?


HARLEY QUINN #75
written by SAM HUMPHRIES
art by SAMI BASRI, RILEY ROSSMO, EMANUELA LUPACCHINO, RAMON VILLALOBOS, JOE QUINONES, NICOLA SCOTT, and NGOZI UKAZU
cover by GUILLEM MARCH
...
At last, it’s the star-studded roast of Harley Quinn! Nothing is off-limits, no topic is out of bounds, and no one—and we mean no one!—will escape unscathed. Harley may be the funniest person in the DC Universe, but how well can she take a joke?
Plus, in a backup story illustrated by superstar artist Riley Rossmo tying into “The Joker War,” Harley Quinn faces off against Punchline!
ON SALE 08.04.20
$5.99 US | 48 PAGES
FC | DC
FINAL ISSUE — YES, WE’RE SERIOUS!


Final issue? For serious? Huh. What are the odds that there's a new #1 solicited next month for September release? They've got to be pretty good, right...?


JUSTICE LEAGUE #51
written by JEFF LOVENESS
art by ROBSON ROCHA and DANIEL HENRIQUES
cover by PHILIP TAN
...
At the mercy of the Black Mercy! As they return from their adventure on the planet Trotha, the Justice League crashes on the homeworld of the Black Mercy! There, they fall prey to the most powerful psychological threat they’ve ever faced! Written by Jeff Loveness (Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty), this two-part descent into the dark corners of the superhero psyche will unearth fresh horror.
ON SALE 08.18.20
$3.99 US | 32 PAGES
FC | DC


I can't imagine what on Earth would possess a writer to begin his run on DC Comics' flagship team book with a story as creatively bankrupt and somewhat scummy as returning to a particular well that writer Alan Moore, who has made no secret about his distaste for DC and other writers continually recycling his work, dug in 1985's Superman Annual #11, but Jeff Loveness has apparently, and disappointingly, decided to do so.

It's particularly distressing because it's not like Loveness is the first, third or fifth writer to fetch a storytelling shortcut from that particular well. So too has Geoff Johns (2006's Green Lantern #7-8), Gail Simone (2008's The All-New Atomo #20), Peter J. Tomasi (2008's Green Lantern Corps #23-26), Jeff Lemire (2011's Superboy #7*), Bryan Q. Miller (2011's Batgirl #24), and Phillip Kennedy Johnson (2018's Aquaman Annual #1), not to mention episodes the of Justice League Unlimited and Supergirl TV shows.

It's more disappointing still in that I just read a really excellent Superman and Lois Lane short story by Loveness in DC's Mysteries of Love In Space, so I would have been particularly excited to see what he could do with the whole Justice League, but I've got my answer early: He's going to exploit the work of a still-living writer everyone at DC seems to exploit as much as possible, maybe the only writer who regularly makes a point of publicly saying he hates that they do that and wishes they would knock it off.


JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED: GALACTIC JUSTICE TP
written by ADAM BEECHEN, JAMES PEATY, and MATT WAYNE
art by CARLO BARBERI, ETHAN BEAVERS, and GORDON PURCELL
cover by BEN CALDWELL
The greatest heroes across the DC Universe unite in this collection featuring the best spacefaring stories of Justice League Unlimited, the comic book series inspired by the beloved animated series of the same name! These stories feature sci-fi adventures starring Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Adam Strange, Sinestro, Space Cabbie, and more! Collects Justice League Unlimited #4, #6, #18, #24, #34, and #46.
ON SALE 08.25.20
$9.99 US | 5.5” x 8” | 152 PAGES
FC | ISBN: 978-1-77950-673-3


This was a sometimes surprisingly good series, and I enjoyed many of the issues of it I read. Thematic collections of it seem like a pretty good idea. Double-checking, the only one of these particular issues I read was #46, which was the final issue of the series, guest-starring the Green Lantern Corps.


THE POWER OF SHAZAM! BOOK 1: IN THE BEGINNING HC
written by JERRY ORDWAY
art by JERRY ORDWAY, PETER KRAUSE, CURT SWAN, MIKE PAROBECK, and others
cover by JERRY ORDWAY
In 1994 Billy Batson’s origin story was revitalized for a new era in The Power of Shazam!, the acclaimed graphic novel written and illustrated by Jerry Ordway. The story reintroduced Shazam, the Wizard, Dr. Sivana, and Black Adam, and was followed by an ongoing series, set four years later. This volume collects both the OGN and the first year of the series, bringing retro elements from Fawcett Comics history into modern-day continuity. Collects The Power of Shazam! graphic novel, The Power of Shazam! #1-12, plus a story from Superman & Batman Magazine #4.
ON SALE 08.18.20
$49.99 US | 408 PAGES
FC | ISBN: 978-1-4012-9941-
5

I'm going to have to ponder this one a bit. I've been meaning to read this series forever (I only read a couple of issues when it was originally released, like the one guest-starring Plastic Man), but $50 is a hefty price-tag, and, as I mentioned earlier, hardcovers of a certain high page-count/width give me pause. I wonder if it would be possible to track all these down for far cheaper than $50. I mean, I'm fairly certain it would, but would it be worth the time and effort one could save with a single, $50 investment...?


TEEN TITANS ANNUAL #2
written by ADAM GLASS and ROBBIE THOMPSON
art by EDUARDO PANSICA
cover by BERNARD CHANG
After Batman discovers the Teen Titans’ most shocking secrets, he arrives at Mercy Hall…and he wants a word with Robin. Don’t miss the confrontation between father and son that will alter the very course of the DC Universe. Will the Teen Titans ever be the same?
RESOLICIT | ON SALE 08.25.20
$4.99 US | 48 PAGES
FC | DC


Cool, does this mean Tim Drake can be Robin again...? Because that whole "Drake" thing isn't really working for me...


TEEN TITANS: BEAST BOY TP
written by KAMI GARCIA
art and cover by GABRIEL PICOLO
Author Kami Garcia and artist Gabriel Picolo, the creative duo behind the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestseller Teen Titans: Raven, take you on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance, while reminding us the value of true friendship—especially when life gets wild.
Garfield Logan has spent his entire life being overlooked. Even in a small town like Eden, Georgia, the 17-year-old with green streaks in his hair can’t find a way to stand out—and the clock is ticking. Senior year is almost over. If Gar doesn’t find a way to impress the social elite at Bull Creek High School, he will never know what it’s like to matter. Gar’s best friends, Stella and Tank, can’t understand why he cares what other people think, and they miss their funny, pizza-loving, video game-obsessed best friend.
Then Gar accepts a wild dare out of the blue. It impresses the popular kids, and his social status soars. But other things are changing, too. Gar grows six inches overnight. His voice drops, and suddenly, he’s stronger and faster. He’s finally getting everything he wanted, but his newfound popularity comes at a price. Gar has to work harder to impress his new friends. The dares keep getting bigger, and the stakes keep getting higher.
When Gar realizes the extent of his physical changes, he has to dig deep and face the truth about himself—and the people who truly matter—before his life spirals out of control.
ON SALE 09.01.20
$16.99 US | FC | 6” x 9”
176 PAGES
DC GRAPHIC NOVELS FOR YOUNG ADULTS
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8719-1


I liked Garcia and Picolo's first Teen Titans OGN, Raven, a lot, so I'm looking forward to seeing what they will do with the next Teen Titan they tackle.




*Okay, Lemire's story had a Red Mercy flower instead of a Black Mercy flower. It was still a riff on a plot element "For The Man Who Has Everything".

Friday, May 15, 2020

Re-reading Star Wars: Dark Empire in the wake of The Rise of Skywalker, because clones

Star Wars: Dark Empire had been in the back of my mind off-and-on ever since the announcement of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as the comic book series was my very first exposure to any post-Return of The Jedi "expanded universe"/not-from-the-movies stories (Stories that have since been designated as non-canonical "Legends" after Disney bought Star Wars and the plan to produce new material set during that time period more-or-less necessitated wiping the setting clean of the scores of comics, novels and sundry other content already filling up that story-space).

Dark Empire became increasingly present in my mind in 2015 when I got my first look at Supreme Leader Snoke, who looked far rougher than even the age-ravaged (and Force-lightning-reflected-off-a-light-saber-ravaged) Emperor Palpatine, who, in my own wondering of who from the third trilogy was connected to whom from the first trilogy, I suspected of being a failed clone of Palpatine.

And then, when Palpatine made audio appearances in the trailers for Rise of Skywalker, Palpatine's resurrection via cloning technology and Dark Side space-wizardry seemed all the more likely; that is, after all, how he made his return from his death at the end of Jedi in the pages of Dark Empire. Hell, as the final film, Rise of Skywalker started flickering before me in the theater, I even suspected that Rey herself was a clone, perhaps of Palpatine, but more likely of Anakin Skywalker, which I thought would explain a lot.

Well, as it turned out, Snoke was some sort of clone (although not necessarily of Palpatine; all we know for sure from the film is that Palpatine and his followers grew Snokes in vats); Palpatine himself was not some sort of clone, he just somehow survived his death in Jedi and then spent a few decades hanging out, constructing a plot so byzantine it doesn't make a lick of sense to me; and that Rey is not a clone either, but the biological daughter of Palpatine's biological child, that he made biologically, by having sex with a lady at some point. (Gross, I know.)

I didn't care for that out-of-left-field revelation at all, and actually preferred my pet cloning theory, as cloning at least is something that happened a lot in the Star Wars-iverse, in the Expanded Universe, sure, but, with the prequel trilogy, in the films themselves, as well. At any rate, it made me want to revisit Dark Empire, which I had previously experienced both as a comic book series and an "audio drama" on CD.

That comic book series, written by Tom Veitch and drawn by Cam Kennedy, was a six-issue miniseries released by Dark Horse in 1991, just eight years after the release of Return of The Jedi (although in my young life, that felt like a generation, as I was six-years-old when I saw Jedi in theaters, but a full-fledged teenager when Dark Empire began its release). While not the first of the post-Jedi expanded universe storiesre-reading it today, it's clear a bunch of stuff happened between the party on Endor and the first pages of Dark Empireit's pretty close, following close on the heels of the events of the Thrawn trilogy (The first Thrawn book, Heir to The Empire, was released the same year as Dark Empire, and the Dark Empire comics and Thrawn books came out roughly concurrently, although I see that the three Thrawn books are now slotted into the timeline as having occurred a year before the Dark Empire stories).

It's a really beautiful-looking comic.

The most immediately striking aspect is the coloring, which Kennedy appears to have handled himself. It doesn't look a whole hell of a lot like any Star Wars film made before it or since, in large part because of how moody its lighting is, and how limited the palette. The comic looks hand-painted with watercolor, giving the shots of space and planets from orbit a more evocative, fantasy-illustration feel than anything attempting realism (It's a space fantasy, after all; why be real?). Each setting and scene seems to have a dominant color. An early battle shows blue machines and soldiers scrambling over brown terrain. Luke confronts the resurrected Palpatine in an all-green scenes with touches of yellow here and there. Once Luke has turned to the Dark Side and Leia confronts him, all is either black or a shade of red...all save the droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, who are blue.

Despite the excellent likeness of a mid-1980s Mark Hamill on Dave Dorman's cover for the collection (above), or of the Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and the various costumes and ships on the individual covers of the six issues, Veitch himself draws the characters, rather than the actors playing the characters, so in the pages within, Luke, Leia, Han and Lando don't stand out as celebrity likenesses. There's a lot of Kennedy in all of the characters and the art, and not a lot of photoreference.

That's extremely refreshing reading this after reading a Marvel Star Wars trade paperback every month or two, and I can't help but wonder if the fact that this was being conceived, designed and drawn back in the late 1980s and early 1990s had something to do with it. Surely Kennedy had access to an incredible amount of visual reference material of the actors in these roles available to him, but it wouldn't have been quite as easy to access back then as it would today.

The other striking thing about the book, beyond how beautiful the damn thing is, is just how much has changed since then. While the three films of the original trilogy still serve as the foundation for everything, so much more has been filled in since then in the other two trilogies, two spin-off films, several TV shows and God knows how many comics and novels and video games that it's weird to go back in time to see such an early Star Wars story that has since been proven "wrong" by later ones, in the same way that, say, re-reading Marvel's original Star Wars comics from the late 1970s and early 1980s, one comes across an adventure of Ben Kenobi as a Jedi Knight that looks nothing like what we would see in Episodes I-III and The Clone Wars, or seeing Jabba The Hutt appear as a weird-looking humanoid alien before the people drawing the comics knew he would end up being a giant slug monster two films later.

But let's get started, shall we? A long time ago, 29 years ago being pretty long I think, in a comic book...

(Play John Williams' fanfare in your imagination here)


THE CRAWL:

The trade paperback collection I'm reading, opens with a lengthy recap of...stuff that happened between the end of Jedi and the point at which this story begins, I guess. It is arranged on the paper in a way that's suggestive of the films' crawl, with the words receding into the distance, but, because these words aren't actually moving, it's more suggestive of it than a completely faithful recreation. There are also a lot of words on these pages. More, I would guess, than in any of the crawls from any of the nine, numbered "episodes" of the Star Wars films.

The gist is that The New Republic has managed to wrest control of only three-fourths of the galaxy from the Empire, while the imperial remnants still control the remaining fourth. There was no real leader among these remnants though, despite Thrawn's "deft assault, nearly bringing the fledgling Republic to its knees." After Thrawn's defeat, the various Imperial factions were civil-warring, and the Rebels—I guess they're still called "rebels", despite now controlling more of the galaxy than not?—use captured Star Destroyers to "conduct hit-and-run sorties" into the war zones, and you know what, I'll just let The Crawl tell you the rest:
One such raid, over the raging Imperial City battleground, ended in disaster: the Alliance Star Destroyer Liberator, commanded by Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian, crash landed on the planet's surface. As our story opens, Princess Leia Organa and her husband Han Solo, together with the Wookiee Chewbacca and the protocol droid C-3PO, are on a daring mission to rescue their fallen comrades.
So yeah, a lot of stuff must have happened elsewhere. Like, I missed Han and Leia's wedding, for example! How did that go? Was Chewbacca the best man? Did Luke give Leia away, or did the Force ghost of her dad do it...?

PAGES 1-3: The story opens on the Millennium Falcon, with lots of tight shots of the aforementioned characters' heads as they bark stuff at one another, preparing to come out of light-speed as they near Coruscant, where Luke and Lando are. Oddly, the first line in the story is Leia warning Han about the dangers of doing so too closely, which he shrugs off, followed by C-3PO warning him of the same, and Han threatens him. The Falcon comes out alright, as does one of the two "Alliance escort frigates" traveling with them, but not the other one. That ship immediately collides into some of that same battle debris and explodes, taking, as the dialogue notes, "a good frigate crew" with it.

It sure sounds like everyone was basically warning Han that their current course of action could get someone killed, and then it did.

Kind of an odd way to start the story.

PAGE 4: Han radios the remaining ship to stay in orbit while they take the Falcon down to look for Luke and Lando, and the pilot of that Frigate responds, "Nyeb Mlu, Solo--"

Hey look, it's...that guy! Wait, I have to look his name up. Oh. Yeah. It's Nein Nub! I hate that guy!

His face always bothered me as a child. (I was an easily bothered child, remember. Most of the first act of Return of The Jedi terrified me.) I didn't like the slick look of the space between his upper jowls and his lower jowls, which looked wet and sticky. And I didn't like the top of his head either. Or his all-pupil, black eyes.

Is it...species-ist to look at another alien race and be like, "I don't like that guy because of the way he looks...?" Like, if I were a Star Wars character and was like, "Ugh, Nein Nub is so gross; I hate him because of the way he was born looking" that would obviously be totally wrong. But is it okay to dislike an alien race because of its looks when that alien race was something some make-up effects people put together...? I don't know. It feels wrong. I guess it's something I should work on before we make contact with any alien races, in case they are gross ones like whatever Nein Nub is, and not sexy ones, like Twi'leks, or cute ones, like Ewoks or Baby Yodas.

PAGE 5-8: After two pages that are basically splash pages of the Falcon zooming into the Coruscant battle zone from orbit, with a few inset panels and dialogue balloons explaining what's going on, we get a glorious two-page spread I regret being unable to scan. Veitch's excited narration box tells us that "mutinous Imperials are deadlocked with forces loyal to the Emperor's inner circle" for control of the planet, and Kennedy has filled the pages with Storm Troopers and Imperial war machines, all rendered in a cool blue, engaged in a zig-zagging ground fight that the direction of which is impenetrable from the outside.

Kennedy mixes things familiar from the movies with things summoned from his imagination and strange crosses between the two. So in this image, we see two giant, dog-like AT-ATs walking across the uneven brown and gray ground, while in the background the Millennium Falcon whizzes by, and TIE fighters and an AT-ST are also visible.

In the foreground are a couple of strange tanks, one of them appears to be something like a metal fortress on treads, with a gigantic gun turret on top, and small guns placed along its sides. There's something that looks a bit like a TIE tank, although since its smoking on the ground, it's possible it's really just a TIE fighter so destroyed that its wings now resemble tank treads.

Crouched behind big, ruined metal pieces that appear to be parts of destroyed vehicles are armored soldiers firing laser beams at one another. Some look like standard issue Storm Troopers, some look like Scout Troopers, some look like new creations of Kennedy's own, with squarish helmets. Some of these have red circles atop their helmets, presumable marking them as members of one team or the other.

I think these are the sorts of images that are all too rare in Star Wars comics today, as here there is just so much brought by the artist into the extant setting. I'm sure there are perfectly good, perfectly logical reasons why we see less and less of creators just making their own shit up all the time in Star Wars comics these days, but it is one of the fun aspects of the older comics; there's a real wildness to them. (The further back you go, the truer this is, too.)

PAGE 9-12: Dialogue tells us that Imperial walkers have Luke and Lando pinned down, and so the Falcon begins the business of shooting down walkers. The most interesting bit on this first page isn't necessarily the group of indistinguishable humans firing blue lasers from their blasters in all directions, but the pair of figures crouched off to the left. Apparently some Ewoks signed up with the Rebellion/Republic after Endor.

They can be seen again on the foreground on page 11, and then shaking hands withe Chewbacca once the Falcon lands and the crew meets up with Lando. Luke, we're told, ran off to investigate some Dark Side shit, and now that the Walkers are down, a small army of scavengers roll up in what looks like a window-less SUV (one with wheels,no less! Its makers obviously aren't taking advantage of the seemingly ubiquitous anti-gravity technology.)

PAGES 13-14: The scavengers rush to strip the Falcon, releasing a pack of "cyborrean battle dogs" to stop our heroes. Leia poses like she's flicking water off her hands, saying she's going to try to use the Force to stop them, when suddenly they go flying...! But it wasn't her, it was "a shadowy figure, menacingly familiar" that steps out of a hole in a wall. The caped figure, just a smokey blue silhouette on the other side of a curtain of dust, has a hand raised, in the next panel, we see the black gloved hand of the figure emerge from the curtain of shadow and smoke, and all of the attacking droids explode:

Here's a good example of Kennedy just doing his own thing. Obviously, all of the various varieties of imperial battle droids we'll meet in the prequel trilogy and the security droids from Rogue One haven't been introduced, so Kennedy just makes up his own droids that look vaguely like ones that might exist int he same place that the likes of C-3PO and that doctor droid thing exist. They are with the scavengers though, so they might be assembled from broken droids and other junk. Note the foot of the one on the far right; it's the same basic shape as a walker's foot, although I would guess somewhat smaller.

PAGES 15-17: Ha ha, did you think that Darth Vader shape was Darth Vader? Don't be silly. He's dead. It was Luke Skywalker all along. Apparently from just the right angle, his hood looks like Vader's helmet in silhouette.

Hey, remember that part in The Last Jedi where it looked like Luke might use his Force powers to take on a bunch of First Order walkers all by himself...? Well, here we takes on one walker all by himself.

He uses the Force to generate a force field (or should that be Force field?) to block a few laser blasts, and then he reflects a blast back into it (I don't know; is this the first time a lightsaber is used to bat blaster fire back at a shooter? I know it happened on the regular during the prequel trilogy and Clone Wars period, and Luke seemed to block some blaster shots during the Sarlacc Pit fight in Jedi, but not necessarily lob them back in the way that common in the prequels).

It may also be worth noting that Luke's lightsaber is here blue, as opposed to green or yellow. This was before lightsaber color was such a thing, of course, and, I suppose, the blue was likely an artistic choice made by Kennedy, as opposed to anything meant as a symbolic reflection of the moral alignment of a Force user. All of the laser blasts have been blue so far, too, rather than red. We'll return to the matter of lightsaber color later.

PAGES 18-23: This whole sequence is a great example of Kennedy's use of color. On the first page, a spooky-looking Luke tells Leia, Han and the others to get lost because it's his destiny to stay here and face a vast evil and so on, and the scene is all green, save for the black of the lines Kennedy has placed on the pages and the dark coloration of Luke's cloak.

The palette adds a few more colors as the scene shifts to orbit, where what looks like a huge portal in space embedded in a dark cloud travels like a comet, and then lands on the surface, eating its way towards them. Inset panels continue to show Luke, bathed in green.

The characters then shift to a pink, as Luke eventually prevails on his pals to all get the hell out of DodgeLeia, for her part, reluctantlywhile only Luke and R2-D2 remain. On the last page, everything is now red as the mouth of the storm comet portal reaches Luke.

PAGES 24-28: As Luke, R2 and a bunch of wreckage get raptured up into the sky, our heroes return to Pinnacle Base, and then there's some catch-up business, with various Rebellion leaders making talking-head appearances: Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, The Guy With The Beard.

We get a look at the current Rebel base, built on a world with enormous red spires, and then everyone gets together for a meeting about the state of the bad guys. While various factions were civil-warring, "someone...or something...has been biding its time" and they have reason to believe "a dark side genius is at work...creating new technologies that go beyond all previous conception...."


On this particular moon, the ships are guided through the big red rock formations by "curious creatures" called Ixlls, and I assume is that bat-like thing there is an example of one. I've puzzled over them for a while, and I can't tell if it his holding a large round object in its hands (there appear to be small clawed thumbs clutching something), or if that's part of the creature. I also can't guess at its size, if it's mean to be as big as the ships are or much, much smaller, and only look big due to how close it is the reader's persepective.

PAGES 29-32: Over a series of four splash pages, dialogue in narration boxes name and reveal the new imperial super-weapons, called "World Devastators." They appear to be gigantic ships, far, far larger than Star Destroyers, that function sort of like titanic vacuum cleaners. They "consume everything in their path.. ...In their holds great furnaces and factories process the cataclysmic feast into raw elements... and new weapons of destruction!"

We won't see it for a while, but what that colorful language means is that not only do these machines carve swathes of destruction, but the stuff they suck up gets turned into fully robotic TIE fighters that they can then spit out to defend them; they are, in essence, mobile, self-sustaining spaceship factories.

I would like to here take a moment to point out how nice it is to encounter a Star Wars story in which the Empire comes up with a super-weapon that isn't just some form of planet-destroying laser beam. Episode IV had its Death Star battle station. Episode VI had a second Death Star that was in-progress, but fully operational. When Episode VII came along 32 years later, the new Empire, the First Order, had "Starkiller Base," which was just a bigger version of a Death Star. And when the saga finally ended (or "ended") last year, it was revealed that the new new Empire, The Final Order, had a fleet of Star Destroyers, each equipped with a special laser cannon that could blow up a whole planet in one shot.

I mean, get a new trick guys.

PAGE 35: This page features one of those examples of something in the book that reads as wrong today, on the other side of the prequel trilogy. Luke refers to am imperial dungeon ship as, "The kind they used to transport Jedi Knights during the Clone Wars..."


I can't say I recognize it from the Clone Wars, but then I did skip the TV show...

PAGES 36-40: The dungeons ship lands on a pale red planet  identified as Byss, surrounded by long, blue imperial ships. Luke and R2-D2 are taken directly from the ship into a floating energy cage, and transported through a strange blue city full of bizarre architecture and sentient beings in elaborate robes. None of them look particularly Star Wars-y...for example, despite some these appearing to be Emperor Palpatine's personal guard, they don't resemble the bright, red Imperial Royal Guard from Jedi. Aside from the fact that they wear robes, of course.

Among the most interesting looking are those that seem to perform some sort of sentry-like duty. They are giants:
I particularly like them because not only are they a sort of character unique to this comic and not from any of the movies, but they sure look like the kind of thing that could have appeared in a 1980s-made Episode VII, with some poles and animatronics under a robe, you know...?

Anyway, Luke Force-shoves some dudes out of his way and tells them he's here under his own free will, and then he marches to meet someone in a swivel chair, the chair's back to him, as the scene shifts from blue to green and, who could it be?

PAGES 41-45: That's right, it's Palpatine.
It's a somewhat odd reveal, really, as there's no dramatic moment with the chair spinning to reveal Palpatine or anything. We just get a close-up of Luke's face, followed by a close-up of Palpatine, looking off to the side.

Palpatine explains that he has lived for a very long time, and "died" repeatedly, each time his body decays under the power of the dark side, he moves into a new clone of his original self. "I live primarily as energy...formlessness... and power!" he explains. This...makes much more sense than whatever the fuck happened in Rise of Skywalker, where the film just sort of glosses over the fact that Palpatine has been alive since the end of Jedi, living as some sort of burnt-up, mummy of a marionette attached to some sort of life support thingamajig or something.

J.J. Abrams should have read more comics!

Anyway, Palpatine would like to seduce Luke to the dark side, and while he turns his chair to a porthole and starts explaining how cool the World Devastators are, R2-D2 hands Luke his lightsaber and asks him "Boop?" (Which is, I guess, droid for "You want to stab this guy or what?") But! Palpatine has laid a trap for Luke, as while Luke tries to decide whether he should saber the old guy or not, Palpatine tells him "Surely you know that if you strike me down, in anger, I will live again!...Perhaps I will even live as you!"

So Luke has no choice but apprentice himself to Palpatine, learn the secrets of the dark side, and then try to defeat him. The sequence ends with Luke taking a knee before Palpatine, and R2 asking "WEEE BDEEP?", which is probably droid for "WTF?"

PAGES 46-48:

Han says "I've got a bad feeling about this." Leia's been having magic Jedi feelings about how much trouble Luke is in, and so the gang is going to go and try to rescue him.

PAGES 49-56:

Lando and Wedge lead the rebel fleet to Calamari (not Mon Calamari, just Calamari), where they engage the devastators, and learn that they are actually giant mobile robot TIE fighter factories. These pages contain some pretty cool battle imagery from Kennedy, once again mixing old Star Wars stuff with new, original stuff that nevertheless looks like it fits. Things aren't going great for the rebels, as Lando loses his second Star Destroyer, when it gets eaten by one of the devastators. He also says that he has a bad feeling about something, which is overkill; once a movie (or, here, "movie") is enough, thanks.

Of note here is that when the rebel fleet shows up, one of the imperial officers orders an underling to "Inform Supreme Commander Skywalker of their presence." So I guess it didn't take too long for Palpatine to install Luke as the Boss of The Empire, and for the the whole Empire to get on board with it.

I'm not master strategist like Palpatine, but I have a feeling there's a fairy high likelihood that making his greatest enemy his right-hand man might backfire.

PAGES 57-62:

Leia is visited by a vision of Darth Vader, which slowly morphs into a spooky-looking Luke, who warns her not to look for him. Luke is just a face floating in a cloak, which is all splotchy blue and green water color, surrounded in an aura of white lighting. Their communication is interrupted by the Emperor, and when Luke's specter disappears, he seems to turn into pure, white lightning and shoot out in every direction of the room. It's another great image in a comic full of them.

After some conversation, preparation and a costume change for Leia, she, Han, Chewie and C-3PO board the Millennium Falcon, heading for a port moon that is a haven for smugglers, and where Han hopes to find help arranging transport to "the deep galactic core," where Leia's Force powers tell her Luke is.

PAGED 63-69:

They make it to the port, although they are immediately met with angry bounty hunters. Apparently, having killed Jabba The Hutt in Jedi made Han, Chewie and now Leia far more wanted then they were before. They reconnect with some friends of Han's from back in the day, Shug Ninx and Salla, and they plan to borrow their ship The Starlight Intruder for their rescue mission, as soon as it's ready.

PAGES 70-72:
While the ship is being worked on, Han and Leia go for a stroll (that's her in the hat, jacket and enormous pair of MC Hammer pants). This scene is a nice example of how fluid the Star Wars comics universe still is. Other than the Hutt in that second panel, Kennedy is apparently free to draw whatever he wants, rather than sticking to extant alien species.

During their stroll, Leia meets an extremely old woman who introduces herself as Vima, a former Jedi of two hundred years who, "In the time of the dying...Vima hurled herself down among the lost...to escape the great scourge." So jeez, here's another Jedi who survived Order 66 and Vader and company's hunt for surviving Jedi. How many is it total? A dozen? Thirty-five?

Anyway, Vima senses the Force in Leia, tells her that she contains "the spark that will rekindle the fire," and gives her a small, decrepit, rectangular box. When Han and Leia look away, Vima disappears.

Han then takes Leia to his ruined apartment, where his old busted-up droid butler is waiting for him, repeating "FZT...A Mr. Fett to see you, sir..." over and over.

PAGE 73-79:

Hey, it's Mr. Fett!

This is the fan-favorite character's very first appearance after meeting his apparent demise in Jedi. By way of explanation, all he offers Han is that "The Sarlaac found me somewhat indigestible."

Kennedy draws a pretty great Boba Fett, and would go on to draw several Boba Fett comics for Dark Horse after this. Boba is here allied with Dengar and a couple of other, non-name bounty hunters. Han and Leia escape pretty easily from them, by simply turning around and running out the door. A running gun battle through the streets follows, terminating when they see the Starlight Intruder rising up from its...garage, I guess...?

Safely aboard the ship, Leia opens the package she got from "Vima-Da-Boda," the narrator giving us her full, sillier name, and finds that it is a light saber. Holding it, Leia suddenly get s a vision of Luke commanding the Empire's forces, and it's a super-cool image. I like that better than any of the available covers for this series or its collections, really.
Again, it seems to me that that Palpatine and The Emperor accepted Luke as Executive Vice President of Rebellion Crushing awfully quickly here, but I suppose that could be just one more way that this series reflects the films—time seems to move at different paces in different story lines.

PAGES 80-83:

More battle over Calimari. Lando, Wedge and the good guys are getting their asses kicked when one of the world devastators receives a signal from "The master control computer on Byss" and then self-destructs.

"Whoever's in charge of those monsters is an idiot!" Lando tells Wedge. "You'd almost think he wants to lose!"

Perhaps he is an idiot...an idiot like a fox!

PAGES 84-85:

Fett's triumphant return is a brief one. As Han and company arrive at Byss, the Falcon parked atop the Starlight Intruder, security lowers the planet's force fields just long enough for the ship to get through. Fett and Dengar follow in Slave II, which is not as cool a ship as Slave I, attempting to sneak in right behind the intruder. Instead, the shield slams shut and their ship breaks into pieces, spiraling away as they trade insults. This is the spaceship-flying equivalent of Boba Fett running into a closed door.

PAGES 86-96:

Using The Force, Leia pilots the Falcon right to The Emperor's base, evades a patrol with a Jedi mind trick, and then she, Han, Chewie and C-3PO surrender, while Salla and Ninx, still aboard the ship, use its guns to blast Stormtroopers and escape.

Luke appears to them in another cool, spectral, water-color hologram (initially appearing with a halo of Kirby dots), and he then sends the giant sentinels to accompany them to a clone lab, where they meet Luke and The Emperor.

Leia ignites her new light saber, and does what Jedis generally do with them. She cuts off someone's hand:
The struggle doesn't last long. The Emperor disintegrates her saber with a gesture, creepily strokes first Luke's face and then hers, and then he gives another little speech about how his awesome energies ravage his body, and thus he has a clone program to give him spares.

Leia again uses The Force to try and kill him, knocking a piece of some equipment free to crush him, but it bounces off a force field he erects around himself, and then Force-lightnings her for discipline. Luke and Han have words.

PAGES 97-100:

Salla and Ninx have stashed the Falcon aboard another space trucker's ship to hide it, and they are hanging out in a rather unsanitary-looking space diner when an Imperial Hunter-Killer droid finds them. This looks pretty much like the probe droid from the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, but gigantic. Like, big enough that it's torso opens up and sucks the Falcon into it when our heroes' new friends try to make a break for it.

PAGES 101-105:

The Emperor is in full frail old man mode as he has his guards leave Leia and him alone in his room, as he's clutching his heart and walking with a cane and everything. He shows her a Jedi holochron, which Kennedy draws as a perfect, featureless cube, the blue and green-yellow light shifting in it as its handled by each of them.

He asks her, "Please...help a dying old man into his bed," and as he explains that upon his death that he, "like all great Jedis...like your own father...will drop this fragile flesh." The difference here is that rather than just become a Force ghost, he can inhabit a new body. Like one of his clones, or, and this seems relevant for Rise of Skywalker, "Indeed, I can enter anyone... I can overshadow the soul that dwells therein."

So that plot point from the climax of Skywalker, the one that retroactively made it seem as if that's what the whole final trilogy was about? The groundwork for that was laid out in the expanded universe decades ago, Abrams and company just needed to, like, toss in a few lines of dialogue in one of the, like, nine hours of those films.

When Palps mentions to Leia that he can even enter her unborn child, we get the best part of the whole series:
She straight up flips the Emperor's bed, spilling his frail old man body onto the floor. Oh, and she steals his holochron and books it.

What I wouldn't have given to have seen Carrie Fisher throwing around an old man on the big screen...

PAGES 106-109:

Meanwhile, in an all-red room, and Imperial officer reports to Lord Skywalker that now three devastators have been destroyed due to the tampered-with control signal, and Luke tells him to keep it under his goofy-looking, over-sized hat.
When Leia runs in, he tells her everything's cool, he's put all of the Empire's important secrets in R2-D2 and now they can all flee together. He still has really scary-looking eyes, though.

PAGE 110:

A low point in Chewbacca's career:

PAGES 111-116:

Han and Chewie are in the process of escaping, just as Nynx and Salla arrive to rescue them, a couple of seconds before Han and Leia arrive to free them. All our heroes board the Millennium Falcon and jump to the safety of light-speed, at which point Luke dissolves before their very eyes; he was never really with them, but was still on Byss.

"He used a dark side power to trick us," Leia says.

Interestingly, Luke does something pretty similar in Last Jedi, during his climactic duel with Kylo Ren.

PAGE 117-118:

Palpatine has recovered from being flipped out of his bed by Leia, and is now seated in a chair in his green-lit clone lab. Luke comes to prevent the transference of the Emperor's mind and power into a new clone body, so before Luke can do anything, he...self destructs...?
It's then a race, as Luke starts slicing open vats and killing clones as fast as possible, as "the Emperor's genetic offspring meet mindless babbling death," before Palps' invisible life essence can inhabit one.

It does so, and slowly a young, muscular young clone with slicked-back hair and green mottled skin rises up from a puddle of goo to stand nude before Skywalker.

Luke, unfazed by either Palpatine's threats or the sight of the penis that was used to bone Rey's grandmother, Force-shoves Palaptine into a wall. He ignites a light saber from a nearby rack, and it's on!

PAGES 119-120:

The fight doesn't last long, just three panels and Palpatine is the victor, but there's a couple of interesting things to consider.
The first thing I noticed was that both Luke and Palpatine wield blue light sabers. This may be simply because of Kennedy's very deliberate choices about lighting throughout this bookyou'll note this page is all pale blue, sickly yellow-green and black and whitebut I suspect this was also before there was much meaning assigned to light saber color, with the Sith always using red, the Jedi blue or yellow, and Sam Jackson purple.

I once had it explained to me by a fan who had three light sabers tattooed on her arm that red is the color of the dark side, yellow or blue is the color of the light, and so-called "gray Jedi" like Qui-Gon Jin used green light sabers. So did Luke in Return of The Jedi. But, this being the '90s, I think this was well before people thought so damn much about every detail of every aspect of Star Wars.

The other interesting bit is that in his dialogue, the Young Emperor says that the Jedi will soon be extinct, and thus "how fitting that one of their precious lightsabers brings an end to the Jedi delusion!"

This seems to not only imply some sort of separation between himself and the Jedi, but to associate lightsabers with the Jedi specifically, rather than also being a Sith weapon. The expanded universe of the novels at this point in Star Wars history is completely unknown to me. Did the word "Sith" even exist yet...? Did they use lightsabers too? Certainly in the original films, Vader does, but not The Emperor, and the films make a point of identifying Vader as a Jedi who turned to the dark side. In the films at that point then, lightsabers are definitely a Jedi thing, exclusively.

At the end of the fight, Luke is sitting on his ass in a puddle of clone afterbirth goo with a lightsaber pointed at him, and a pissed-off Palps tells him that they're going to go get his holochron back from Leia, as well as her unborn child.

PAGES 121-130:

The Millennium Falcon speeds toward the still ongoing battle on Calamari, R2-D2 first freezing the world devastators and then making them crash into one another. Kennedy draws lots of cool shit in these pages, including rebel ships with wings that terminate in pontoons, skimming across the water, and boat loads of rebel soldiers using jet packs and powerful grappling hook-guns to engage with Stormtroopers on the decks of the devastators.

Among the dialogue throughout these scenes, Han yells at 3PO, R2 yells at 3PO and 3PO snaps back at his little friend, Salla mentions making the Kesel run in the Falcon with Lando (Man, don't these people ever shut up about the Kesel run?), Han asks Chewie to call the troops on the the devastators  and tell them to evacuate (which seems an odd task to assign the one character that doesn't speak English/Basic) and, in the best part, Han apologizes to Leia for doubting Luke:
"I guess I'll just never figure ol' Luke out."
"Luke is sacrificing his life for us, Han...for our children. Sometimes the actions of a Jedi make no sense to ordinary men."
Ouch. Leia totally just called her husband ordinary, huh?

His reply?:
"Yeah, who would have thought? Me...father of Jedi. I guess an ordinary guy can do somethin' right sometimes."
I think what he's saying is that he may not be a special magic Jedi like Luke, but at least he fucks.

(For what it's worth, Luke will kiss a lady in the sequel to this, Dark Empire II, but the relationship is short-lived, and about as romantic as Luke's dad's courting of his mom in Attack of The Clones.)

PAGES 131-133:

The battle over, Mon Mothma, The Guy With The Beard and the rebel leaders have a meeting, while Leia retires alone to a bedroom, talking to the Jedi spirit in the holochron. The spirit, Bodo-Baas, gives her a dumb prophetic rhyming poem that starts out somewhat subtly, mentioning "A brother and sister/born to walk the sky", but, a few lines later just straight up refers to them as "the Skywalkers."

Veitch's narration tells us that "Leia ponders the mysterious prophecy," although there's nothing all that mysterious about it: It says she has to help Luke defeat The Emperor.

PAGE 134:

The Emperor has an all-black Star Destroyer that is ten miles long. It's just...ridiculously big. Here it is next to some regular-sized Star Destroyers:
It's so big. On the previous page, Veitch's narration referred to it as being "of prodigious proportions." I am going to have to assume that the Emperor's new clone body has no penis as all. That's the only explanation for the size of this ship.

He holograms into the Rebel meeting and says if Leia brings him back his holochron he will discuss a truce with them. Leia's like, hell yeah, I'll go. She must have figured out the final lines of Bado-Baas' "mysterious" prophecy:
A Jedi-killer wants to tame her.
Now the Darkside lord
comes to claim her.
She must battle join
against this thief,
or the dynasty of all the
Jedi will come to grief!
PAGES 135-136:

Leia arrives aboard the 10-mile long black ship wearing what appears to be a Supreme Court Justice's robe. The Emperor is now wearing clothes, a long black robe with a pointy-upturned collar, making him look as much like Space Dracula as possible. He's busy fondling a floating space sculpture while Luke, wearing a matching black robe, lurks nearby, a red light saber lit in his hand.

So now there are red lightsabers, I guess.

Palpatine starts talking to Leia about how he's going to raise her unborn child and maybe take its body for his own one day and...
...she shoots Force lightning from her belly at him?!

PAGES 137-138:

Luke and Leia almost have a lightsaber duel, but the closest they get is briefly crossing swords, until she talks him down a bit.

Palpatine is now full-on Dracula, I think I can even detect a glimpse of fangs:

PAGES 139-140:

Palpatine calls Vader impotent, in a very Star Wars-specific way:
Oh snap, "the impotent side of the Force!"

This begins the best and longest lightsaber battle in the whole series, although there's only about three blows in it. There's a great panel where Palpatine raises his lightsaber to strike, and it's infused with Force lightning, but it ends, as it must, with someone getting their hand chopped off. Here, Palpatine.

Is it just me, or does someone lose a hand every time a lightsaber ignites...?

PAGES 141-143:

The fight over, Palpatine summons his evil Force storm from the beginning of the story, the one that sucked Luke and R2-D2 up off the surface of Coruscant, to eat his very big ship. Luke and Leia close their eyes, unite their Force power and...somehow send light energy at Palpatine, who is now drooling. He screams as the Force storm starts disintegrating his ship, and our heroes escape in a shuttle, the end. It's quite abrupt.

I think if this were a film, the drama with the Skywalkers aboard Palpatine's giant ship probably would have been intercut with the battle scenes on Calimari, and there would have been some sort of denouement, but then, this is not a film.

This leads directly into a sequel by the same creative team, 1994's aforementioned Dark Empire II, and an abbreviated third installment written by Veitch and drawn by Jim Baikie, 1995's Empire's End, but let's call it quits here.

In conclusion: J.J. Abrams should have made the Palpatine of the Rise of Skywalker a clone and he should have made Rey a clone of Anakin Skywalker.

Or, at the very least, he should have sought more inspiration from this comic which, whatever its faults, featured a better, easier-to-follow return of The Emperor.

Monday, May 11, 2020

What I've been reading while quarantined

Ohio's stay-at-home order closed all non-essential businesses in late March, which obviously included all public libraries. As a result, during the last six weeks or so I've found myself with 40 extra hours of free time per week. That means I've had plenty of time to catch up on my reading, and I was able to make a dent in my substantial to-read pile. Well, to-read piles, plural.

I've had about eight precariously stacked towers of graphic novels scattered about my apartment for way too long now (see one such pile, above), each composed of copies of books I was sent by publishers for possible review and books that I bought when they first came out but hadn't yet found the time to sit down and read (these tend to be low-priority books, as obviously anything I am definitely going to review or that I borrow from the library and thus have to read and return by a certain time always take precedence).

I wasn't able to read my way through all of the books in all of the piles, obviously, but I certainly made some progress. And I decided to review them all as I went, because of course I did. So below you'll find short-ish reviews of all the books from my to-read piles that I've managed to read in the past six weeks or so. I've included the release date of each book after the title, which I did not just to provide additional detail about the book in question, but also to give you a sense of just how long I've been meaning to get to it.


Cheshire Crossing (July 2019) Writer Andy Weir's three-page preface to this graphic novel gives quite a bit of backstory to the final work, which he says stemmed from his obsession with fanfiction and crossovers. This is both, although given that the source materialLewis Carrol's Alice books, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan writings and L. Frank Baum's Oz workis all public domain now, it is the sort of fanfiction that is perfectly legal to publish, and, in fact, often considered more literary than your Superman Vs. Spider-Man or your Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe or Star Trek/Planet of The Apes or what have you.

If Weir's name is familiar to you, as it was to me, it may be because he wrote the novel The Martian (which I never read, nor saw the film adaptation of), and some other novels, too. Apparently he also used to dabble in webcomics, and that's how Cheshire Crossing began, although when publisher 10 Speed Press expressed interest in publishing it, they decided to get a much better artist than Weird to draw it, and so Sarah Andersen of Sarah's Scribbles was brought in to draw it instead (you'll note the style of this comic, as seen on the above cover, doesn't look much like that of her comic strip).

If you've been interested in comics for very long then you're no doubt aware that this is hardly the first time these three ladies have met in a single comic book, although it's well worth noting this is pretty much nothing at all like Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls, and not just in the fact that it's not high-end, literary pornography. Rather, while Moore and Gebbie's work had a metafictional element to it, and was a bit more slavish to the details of the source material as relates to the women who used to be the girls, Weir and Andersen's all-ages adventure plays much faster and looser when it comes to fitting the puzzle pieces of its inspirations.

For some reason, Weir decided to include a page that notes the book is set in 1904, but then, on page two, the first panel reads "Six Years Later." So the book is either set in 1904 or 1910, six years after Alice returned from Wonderland. The math doesn't really work, though, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865. Barrie's first Peter Pan play was indeed in 1904 and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1910. There's a pretty dramatic age difference between the sources, and, imagining that they were all "real" stories, Alice should be a good generation or two older than the other girls (as is reflected in Lost Girls). Regardless, if Weir and had just left off that first page with "1904" on it, they could have avoided all this, and we could have just thought of the characters as all having come from their own timeless stories (For example, the three girls and there stories were, as far as I personally am concerned, from the late 20th century, when I first encountered them for myself).

Other than having them share space, Weir's other invention is that they all have some sort of ability or super-power that allows them to travel between the real world and their individual alternate dimensions. None of their parents believe their stories, and so the girls have all been diagnosed with a dramatic dissociative psychosis. They don't seem to be getting any better, either, despite many treatments and many stays in institutions (and which, at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, weren't exactly the most pleasant places.)

Cheshire Crossing is the latest institution that Alice Liddel, Wendy Darling and Dorothy Gale are sent to, and the first all three are in together. It's run by Ernest Rutherford, a real-life British physicist (1871-1937), and the only other staff there is a former surgeon named Lem and a nanny with an umbrella and magic powers who introduces herself as Miss Poole who I think is Mary Poppins, but I can't tell for certain, nor figure out why she's introduced as Poole (I've never read any of P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins books, which I presume would answer that, but it appears the first of these wasn't published until 1934, so if we're meant to keep track of the dates, she seems a particularly odd ally for these three girls).

Notably, Andersen doesn't take her design or rendering cues either from the original illustrators of the books, nor from the more famous film adaptations of those books, but does her own thing. This at first took some getting used to. As someone who spent a great deal of time with John Tenniel's illustrations of the Alice books during my formative years, the idea of a dark-haired Alice rather blew my mind, for some reason much more so than that of a dark-skinned Dorothy and Captain James Hook or a young, beautiful, fair-skinned Wicked Witch of the West.
I grew used to the new designs fairly quickly though because, of course, one aspect of all three of these treasured works of classic nursery literature that continues to fascinate me is seeing how different artists over the generations have interpreted the characters differently. In that regard, Andersen's most interesting character design is probably that of the Cheshire Cat, who has a particularly sinister-looking face, and a body that is something of a Slinky in the middle.
Alice, a veteran of unpleasant sanitarium experiences, is hot to escape on her very first night, and she steals Dorothy's silver slippers in an attempt to do so. Wendy, whose short-haired, tom boy, Peter Pan-esque makeover is quite understandable, attempts to stop her, and so Alice and Wendy end up in Oz and at the mercy of The Wicked Witch. Miss Poole and Dorothy go to save them, but, before they arrive, Alice has already made a jump to Wonderland in order to find help to defeat the Witch.

But that's just one adventure. No sooner are the girls back at their school then Tinkerbell comes looking for Wendy, alerting her that the Witch has joined forces with Hook in Neverland and taken Peter captive, so they must all fly to Neverland to face both villains at once.

It's an awful lot of fun, and probably more fun the more familiar you are with the characters. I particularly enjoyed Weir's angry, arrogant, foul-mouthed take on Alice, who is forced to team up with Peter at one point, and accidentally exposes the boy who never grew up to a sudden onset of puberty when he eats some berries from Wonderland. And I always enjoy spending time with Barrie's Hook character, who here, of course, is more handsome, suave and devious than the angry, foolish Disney version.
I'm not sure if there will ever be a volume two, but the epilogue introducing Wonderland's Queen of Hearts certainly leaves the door open for one and, really, all three of these mythologies have expanded for quite a while after their initial offerings, and have proved infinitely inspirational for well over a century's worth of creators of all media, so it's not likely Weir and Andersen will run out of characters and concepts to play with.

They should probably just leave the calendar year out of the next one (Oh, and it looks like Weir confuses The March Hare and the White Rabbit on the last page), as other than that nitpick, I thought this was a particularly fun comic.


Decades: Marvel In The '70sThe Legion of Monsters (April 2019) I'm at least curious about all eight volumes of Marvel's Decades series, each of which selects a particular group of characters or titles or some theme as a means by which to define what was unique about that particular decade of the publisher's output. After all, Marvel published a lot of comics in each of those decades, so it's interesting to see how they decide on a particular theme, and then which particular titles they chose to represent it.

That said, curious as I may have been, there were only two that I felt I had to own: Marvel In The '40sThe Human Torch Vs. The Sub-Mariner and Marvel In The '70sLegion of Monsters. Of course, regardless of how strongly I felt that this trade paperback was one that should eventually make its way to my bookshelf, I still didn't get around to reading it until, oh, an entire year after it was published.

I don't disagree with whoever decided that Marvel's 1970s should be represented by their particular experimentation with classic horror characters, a hybrid hero/superhero genre and black and white magazines for more adult audience, wherein artists like Val Mayerik, Mike Ploog and Sonny Trinidad could better showcase their skills (and also draw sexier ladies in more revealing outfits then they could have gotten away with in Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers at the time).

Roughly the first half of the collection is devoted to comics featuring the usage of the term "Legion of Monsters", a good name that Marvel would return to repeatedly in its history, most recently in a 2011 series by Dennis Hopeless and Juan Doe. So that means the one and only issue of Legion of Monsters from 1975, plus 1976's Marvel Preview #8, which "presents The Legion of Monsters" and Marvel Premiere #28, "featuring The Legion of Monsters."

Those first two are black-and-white anthology comics with some prose features, while the third was a full-color comic book, featuring a one-off "team" consisting of Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Morbius and Werewolf By Night, in which Bill Mantlo, Frank Robbins and Steve Gan had them gather to investigate a mountain that sprung up suddenly in LA and housed a god-like creature that they all attacked save Ghostie.

The comics from the black and white magazines...?

•The Frankenstein Monster by Doug Moench, Val Mayerik and Pablo Marcos (There are a few lines of dialogue in which male characters accuse the monster of being gay in here that didn't age well, and seem striking because there are two of them in just 15 pages)

•"Vengeance Crude" by Marv Wolfman, Tony Isabella, Dave Cockrum and Sam Grainger, featuring the humanoid fish-like creature that would become known as Manphibian (That's him on the cover). I'm kind of surprised that Manphibian never scored a title of his own, based on the facts that a) That is a great name and b) I know so many superhero artists who seem to love The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and working on this character for Marvel would be the next best thing to finding a publisher to license the Creature for new comics stories.

•"The Flies" by Gerry Conway, Paul Kirschner and Ralph Reese, featuring a pretty good old-school horror comic twist ending story (although I don't understand where Chuckles got those giant, boy-sized fly wings)

•Dracula, in chapter seven of an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano (Oddly enough, the 10-page chapter of the adaptation is preceded by a five-page illustrated recap).

•A Morbius story by Moench and Sonny Trinidad

•An uncredited Bade story in which the vampire slayer kills a bunch of vampires who were turned while they were children

•"The Reality Manipulators" by Don McGregor, Mike Ploog and Marie Severin, about an incredibly complex plan to drive a guy crazy before he can testify in a court case

•"Curse of Anubis" by Russ Johns, John Warner and Mayerik, which is basically a riff on a werewolf story in which some English archaeologists find what appears to be the tomb of Anubis, and accidentally unleash your basic werewolf curse (Although maybe he's a were-jackal...? Mayerik's design is definitely wolf-ish). I'm a little surprised I haven't see this guy show up in any Marvel comics over the last 20 years or so, honestly...

The back half of the book consists of the first appearances of several Marvel horror heroes, who, oddly enough, we've already seen appear in the stories that preceded these: Werewolf By Night (from Marvel Spotlight #2), Dracula (from Tomb of Dracula #1), Ghost Rider (from Marvel Spotlight #5 and the Frankenstein Monster (from Monster of Frankenstein #1). Ploog drew all of these save the Dracula story, which was drawn by Gene Colan. Colan's art on this reminded me quite a bit of Tom Mandrake's art...I assume he was an influence, and I just never noticed the similarity before, because I am dumb...?

Of these, I definitely enjoyed Gary Friedrich and Ploog's Ghost Rider the most, due in part to several unintentionally hilarious segues, as in a scene that occurs directly after Johnny Blaze's adopted father tells him that he's "got the disease," and only has a month or so to live, with no son to carry on his stunt motorcycle show (on account of the fact that Johnny swore on his adopted mother's deathbed never to ride in the show).

Johnny considers all of his options for what must have been a single afternoon or so, before this decision:

And not long after, his adopted sister/love interest walks in on him while Satan's burning off his face and reveals that she totally suspected Johnny had sold his soul to the devil in order to save their father:

Much of this trade has been collected elsewhere...heck, maybe most of it, but this is a pretty good sampler of some of Marvel's seventies horror output, and not a bad place to start and see if you want to invest the time and money in those collections. It's definitely a great showcase for artists Ploog and Mayerik.


Harley Quinn and The Birds of Prey (December 2019) One of the handful of collections seemingly published just to have something on comic shop and book store shelves should the Birds of Prey film incite curiosity, this 144-page anthology must have been something of a challenge for the editors to assemble. Given how little the Birds of Prey film resembles the Birds of Prey comic (the only real overlap being the title and the fact that the characters are all female), what this collection includes is a brand-new Joelle Jones cover featuring the film's versions of the characters, and, hiding behind it, six entirely unrelated comics published between 1996 and 2007, each of which features the DC Comics Universe versions of the characters from the movie.

The particular comics are actually fairly random. None feature the first appearance of any of the characters, or are devoted to telling their origins, or seem chosen to match the versions of the characters who showed up in the film, or are even complete stories. (The Black Canary story, from Showcase '96 #3, for example, is from long, long before she was a singer, or had regained her "canary cry" power; it's also the only actual story in this collection featuring the "Birds of Prey" concept). In addition to Harley Quinn, Black Canary, The Huntress, Renee Montoya, Batgirl Cassandra Cain and The Black Mask, the book also includes Oracle Barbara Gordon, Nightwing, Catwoman, Lois Lane and, of course, Batman.

As random as the particular stories chosen might seem, the book does present a rather wide variety of stories within the superhero genre, and many of them offer easy starting points to follow their stories into other graphic novels. For example, if you like the Birds of Prey feature from Showcase '96, there's three volumes collecting the early one-shots, miniseries and first 21 issues of the ongoing series. If you're intrigued by the mute ninja Cassandra Cain, there's three volumes collecting the Kelley Puckett/Damion Scott run on Batgirl. And so on.

The book opens with 2007's Detective Comics #831, a Harley Quinn story by her co-creator Paul Dini and artists Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher. This was probably a harder one to pick out, as there are so many Harley Quinn comics to choose from at this point. The most obvious issues, 1994's The Batman Adventures: Mad Love #1 and 1999's Batman: Harley Quinn are longer than 20 pages. I'm a little surprised they didn't go with a first issue from one of Harley Quinn ongoings, particularly one of the post-Flashpoint ones, as comic book Harley and movie Harley began to merge there, but this is actually a pretty good story, and has the benefit of being by the writer who knows Harley best. It's also the only comic in here that was written as a done-in-one story, so it has that advantage, too. Harley's parole has just been denied when she is broken out of Arkham Asylum by Scarface and his new Ventriloquist, "Sugar" (Pleas note: I hate the Ventriloquist II and Ventriloquist III; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle's original version does appear in this issue, though, in a flashback). Wanting to reform, and to avenge the old Ventriloquist based on a tender flashback, Harley rebels, and ends up teaming up with Batman.

That's followed with the Black Canary story, which is actually a Birds of Prey/Lois Lane team-up story, from the 1996 anthology maxi-series Showcase '96, which featured Superman characters teaming up with characters from throughout the DC Universe. Written by BOP co-creator Jordan B. Gorfinkel and drawn by Jennifer Graves and Stan Woch, it joins Black Canary and Lois Lane's independent investigations of a slave labor operation in Metropolis after they've crossed over and had to result to hand-to-hand combat with the slave drivers. It's an unusual choice for the Canary spotlight issue, seeing as she shares the spotlight with Lois and Oracle, who, at that point, was just a mysterious, know-it-all-voice that spoke to Dinah over a tiny earpiece. Also at that point, Canary had eschewed fishnets, had short blonde hair and, as I said, was neither a singer nor had sonic powers, so it's not the most reflective story of how she appeared in the film, or her normal comics history over her some 80 years of appearances (An issue from the 2015 Black Canary series by Brenden Fletcher, Annie Wu and company might have made more sense, but then, DC collected all 12 issues of that in January under the title Birds of Prey: Black Canary, with a new cover featuring Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary. Still, the character had miniseries in 1991 and 2007, a short-lived ongoing series in 1993, and has been in various Justice League, Green Arrow and Birds of Prey comics for decades...it's hard to imagine there's not a better Black Canary spotlight issue available).

The most curious inclusion in here is probably The Huntress story, which is taken from 1998's miniseries Nightwing/Huntress, by writer Devin Grayson and what must now sound like an incredibly bizarre art team: Greg Land and Bill Sienkiewicz, from back when Land's art look hand-drawn and his pages actually worked as effective sequential art. What's odd is that not only is this a Huntress team-up comic, climaxing with her and Dick locking lips, but it's the second issue of that series. It reads well enough on its own, sure, but it did make me want to pull out my back issues and re-read it to see what happens next (If you weren't reading Batman comics in the late 1990s, Huntress was the black sheep of the Batman family, and Batman loathed working with her and was always trying to push her out of the crime-fighting business, sometimes because he was worried she would get hurt, and sometimes because he worried she would hurt others, as she was a bit more violent than he and the lieutenants he trained himself. Although one could also say Batman was a bit sexist, as he similarly objected to Spoiler). There are certainly plenty of Huntress comics to choose from, so the second chapter of a Nightwing team-up miniseries is a pretty strange choice. Is it worth noting that she and Renee Montoya are the characters in the film who best resemble their comics incarnations...?

Renee Montoya's spotlight issue is 2003 Gotham Central #6, from the excellent 40-issue, 2003-2006 series that was basically a well-drawn comic book version of Law & Order: Gotham City. This is the first issue of the seminal "Half a Life" story, which revealed Renee's sexual orientation in a way that Renee herself was obviously not at all okay with and, in fact, it ends with such a dramatic cliffhanger that this was another one I found myself wanting to reread. This particular issue is written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Michael Lark, and the series has been collected repeatedly. If you haven't read it and are at all interested in Batman comics and/or Renee Montoya, I'd certainly recommend it. Though this is just the first chapter in a longer story, it's hard to think of a better Renee Montoya story, particularly as this one doesn't really revolve around Batman or Two-Face or any other such characters (at least, not in this particular chapter).

Because the Cassandra Cain of the film has nothing at all in common with the comic book version of the character aside from her name (and which continent some of their DNA may have originated on, I suppose), it hardly matters which Cassandra Cain story they chose to include. They went with 1999's Batman #567, a "No Man's Land"-era issue that kicked off the "Mark of Cain" story arc, in which the new Batgirl's father, assassin David Cain, appears in Gotham City to take out Commissioner James Gordon, whose daughter Barbara has become Cass' mentor. While written by Kelley Puckett and drawn by Damion Scott, who would write and pencil the eventual Batgirl ongoing, this is inked by John Floyd, rather than Robert Campanella, and it is also early enough in Scott's run on the character that it looks fairly rough compared to his later work in he coming years. Even still, I forgot how good the action scenes were this early in their Batgirl story. The two scenes where Cass rescues Gordon in this issue both demonstrate how fast and how good she is at fighting in so relatively few, wordless panels and are both great comics story-telling. I hate to sound like a broken record, but this kinda made me want to revisit "No Man's Land" in general, and "Mark of Cain" in particular. I guess I'm very impressionable...? As mentioned earlier, if a reader is intrigued by this, DC has collected almost all of "No Man's Land" and the entirety of the Puckett/Scott run on Batgirl; the recent, non-canonical OGN Shadow of The Batgirl also manages to tell a version of Cassandra's origin in a way that's pretty consistent with her comics origin.

The final story included in this collection is from 2003's Catwoman #16, from the 2002-2008 volume of the series (that is, the best volume; sorry, '90s Catwoman! You certainly had your moments!). This one is written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Cameron Stewart and is actually the concluding, fifth chapter of an in-progress story. The character from the film being promoted here is Black Mask, who is the villain who has been making Catwoman's life hell throughout this arc. It's a pretty great comic, as the makeup of that creative team no doubt tells you, and it still works quite well, even in this partial form, as a crime comic that just-so-happens to star some Batman villains. As to why they chose this one, given how little Black Mask actually features in it, it does feature the character's brutal, evil side, as he has apparently tortured Catwoman's sister and brother-in-law when she corners him, and then chains her to a wall, intent on doing the same. So that aspect of the character in the film is certainly evidenced here. Also, this is a good comic, and there's lot of this volume of Catwoman available in trade, for anyone who missed it.

The final few pages are devoted to a half-dozen profiles featuring each of the characterswell, Renee is only included as part of one devoted to "G.C.P.D."pulled from various Secret Files & Origins specials.


Jughead: The Hunger Vols. 1-3 (July 2018-August 2019) Jughead Jones' prodigious hunger for cow flesh seemingly knows no bounds, as he consumes hamburger after hamburger over the last 80 years. But what if, asked the Frank Tieri-written, Michael Walsh-drawn 2017 one-shot, by the light of the moon, he became a werewolf, and his taste for human flesh was just as insatiable? Basically Archie Comics' horror genre answer to Marvel's old What If...? comics, the answer that Tieri and Walsh gave in that initial 40-page story was apparently appealing enough to the publisher and the reader, earning an ongoing series with a 13-issue run and a crossover mini-series with the What If...Vernonica Was a Vampire? story, Vampironica.

The initial one-shot was obviously inspired by the success of Roberto Agguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla's abandoned Afterlife With Archie series, as while Walsh's artwork doesn't ape Francavilla's, his limited color palette, with lots of blues and shadows occasionally broken up with garish, Halloween orange panels. definitely suggested the earlier What if...A Zombie Apocalypse broke out in Riverdale? series.

I'm not sure if Tieri was originally planning on spinning that one-shot out into an ongoing series or not, but I suspect not, or else he likely wouldn't have had the Jugwolf eat Dilton Doiley in that first issue...particularly since a later story arc calls for a mad scientist character, and some stretching is needed to get a new version of Dilton to fill the role. Still, there was enough to go on in that first 40-pages, including the Jones family being the descendants of a long line of werewolves, something there was no real reason to suspect other than the fact that Jughead had a long nose and loved eating meat, I guess, and that Betty Cooper was form a long line of werewolf slayers and she had, in fact, infiltrated the gang to keep a close eye on Jughead, waiting to see if he ever turned and, if so, put him down. Archie is the mostly hapless bystander here that he so often was in various relationships and conflicts throughout his many, many decades as a teen comedy comics star, although he does try to play peacemaker the best he can.

After the one-shot, Tieri starts building history and adding more characters in a widening gyre: Jughead flees Riverdale while Betty and Archie pursue him, his last Riverdale victim Reggie rises from the dead as a werewolf and starts turning others to form his own pack, we meet more Jones werewolves and more Cooper werewolf hunters, Jughead has to return to Riverdale to rescue his little sister Jellybean from Reggie, the werewolf murders are pinned on others and Betty and Jughead reach a detente, a mad scientist attempts to restore various victimes to life, including Moose Mason who becomes "Frankenmoose," Hiram Lodge finally gets involved...

The best visual gag of the whole thing is one seen on may of the covers: Jughead's odd crown beanie, always perched atop the head of his hulking werewolf form. The transformations generally shred the clothes of whoever's turningnot even Veronica seems to care if she regular destroys whatever designer outfit she's wearing when she shape-shiftsbut that beanie always manages to say perched on Jug's head.

The artwork is a little all over the place, as after the one-shot Walsh is replaced by Pat and Tim Kennedy and Joe Eisma, with the artist often splitting issues between them. None of it's necessarily bad art, of course, but it lacks a visual cohesion by virtue of continually changing back and forth between artists, and even the inking and coloring being the work of many different hands.

I was only a few issues in when I stopped to take in a particularly grand guignol-style image. In it, we see the corpse of a young woman that was flirting with Jughead. Her head is severed, with one eyeball hanging from its socket, her stomach is ripped open and her viscera piled up next to it and, oddly enough, her skirt pulled up so we can see her underwear. It's obviously a pretty gory image, and it's but one of many. The thing is, though, that it wasn't shockingly so; I mean, at that point in the narrative, we had already seen Miss Grundy's head torn off, Dilton torn to pieces and partially eaten, Reggie shredded by werewolf claws and so on.

What seemed so daring about Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla's Afterlife series, the introduction of violence, gore, sex and other more grown-up, R-rated movie style trappings to the ever-pure and kid-friendly world of Riverdale, has long since worn off. In fact, Archie has done so much stuff in that vein since then, both in print and on TV, that now the the innocent gag stuff seems like the outlier.

I know I shared this anecdote on Twitter, but I can't recall if I did here or not, so apologies if I'm repeating myself. Last fall, I gave my sister a copy of an Archie Halloween special, which collected a handful of classic stories, drawn in the old house style and featuring short, gag-driven strips...the thing everyone used to think of when they thought "Archie Comics." She's a grade-school teacher, and I often pass on kids comics to her, which she keeps in her classroom to let kids read during recess or when they finish an assignment early or whatever. She was a little hesitant to accept it, and asked if it was appropriate for kids, and asked if I was sure a few times, as she had come to associate Archie Andrews and Riverdale with the TV show Riverdale, which was not appropriate for her students.

So while Tieri's script was readable, and compelling enough that I got wrapped up in the story and made it through all three volumes in a couple of days, as I kept wanting to know what happened next, it doesn't feel as subversive as it probably did when it was originally conceived. I do wonder if that has something to do with the more realistic style it's drawn inArchie Vs. Predator was certainly able to instill a degree of shock in seeing the characters looking like their older, more innocent incarnations being killed and killing, but maybe even if Dan Parent drew Jughead: The Hunger the newness of a Riverdale-set comic for grown-ups, willfully engaging in gore and violence would still fail to shock, or even surprise. It still engages, at least.


Jughead The Hunger Vs. Vampironica (March 2020) If a comic book publisher or a movie studio has two successful horror hits, then I suppose it is only natural to combine them into some sort of team-up or face-off. The difficulty for Archie Comics doing this with the stars of their Jughead: The Hunger and Vampironica is that the comics weren't created to co-exist; both comics are set in Riverdale and prominently feature the classic Archie characters, of course, but they are two entirely different sorts of "What If...?" style comics, each featuring entirely different and contradictory versions of Jughead, Veronica, Archie and Betty.

So while in Juhghead: The Hunger, for example, Jughead and Veronica are both werewolves and Betty a hardened werewolf hunter from a long line of werewolf hunters; in Vampironica, Veronica was (temporarily) a vampire, while Jughead, Betty and the rest of the characters were basically just their normal themselves.

Writer Frank Tieri solves this problem using Gardner Fox's old, Silver Age DC Comics trick of multiple, alternate Earths and, indeed, as the comic progresses, Sabrina contacts them from yet another Earth, and there's a three-page sequence revealing glimpses of various Archie settings, including the likes of Betty and Veronica: Vixens, Archie: 1941, the Riverdale TV show, an off-model Josie and The Pussycats in Outer Space and more. (For the record, this was the second Archie miniseries I read this month featuring glimpses of an Archie multiverse, the first being Sina Grace and Derek Charm's Jughead's Time Police; that series handled the Crisis In Infinite Archie Comics elements infinitely better than this one, I think.)

The other problem with this pairing? While Jughead: The Hunger's story line was still ongoing at the end of the third collection, Vampironica pretty unequivocally ended, with everything going back to normal at the end of the miniseries, including Veronica no longer being a vampire (The collection of that series is reviewed below, if you would rather read about it before reading about this one). Tieri's solution for that is a lot less elegant, with Veronica basically finding out in the first issue of this series that actually, she still is a vampire, and so are her parents; she didn't succeed in killing the proper boss vampire in her own series to restore all of the vampires to normal, living human beings after all, and so here she has to do it again. (There's a sequel series of Vampironica, Vampironica: New Blood though, so Greg and Megan Smallwood's original story is going to be undone somewhere; the first issue of that series is reprinted in the back of this collection, actually).

So on Earth-V, Veronica and here friends have just finished celebrating having saved Riverdale from vampires at Pop's, when she returns to retrieve her forgotten phone, only to find Pop being attacked by vampires...and, while fighting them, learning that she too still has her vampire powers.

They and she all fade away, and end up on Earth-J:H, where Vampironica's Veronica teams up with The Hunger's Jughead, Betty and Archie to fight off the hordes of invading vampires and complete a plot-boiling quest. Meanwhile, Sabrina appears to explain why their worlds are crossing over and what it means for the integrity of the Archie Comics multiverse, and there's a scene that will apparently pay off in a future comic in which a teenage version of the Jinx from Li'l Jinx casts a spell that seems to have started all this nonsense.

Tieri seems to use the opportunity to resolve some of the unresolved threads left over from (the abandoned? Canceled?) Jughead: The Hunger, like Betty's romantic feelings for Jughead...feelings that Veronica shares. Archie looking on while Jughead is the object of everyone's affections is a fun twist, but it's a relatively rare moment of humor in a comic that is otherwise played surprisingly straight. As was the case with The Hunger, art chores are split between Pat and Tim Kennedy and Joe Eisma for all five issues, so the book never completely settles on a look or feel...or even basic character designs.

It's therefore not all that great, but probably semi-necessary reading for anyone who wants to follow Vampironica, as the sequel series appears to follow pretty directly from the events of this crossover.


Man and Superman 100-Page Super Spectacular #1 (April 2019) The Marv Wolfman-written, Claudio Castellini-drawn story collected in this skinny trade paperback format was originally meant to be a four-issue arc in Superman Confidential, the extremely short-lived 2007 title that seemed like it was meant to be a Legends of The Dark Knight-style anthology, although given that it only lasted 14 issues, it's hard to say for sure (It's probably best remembered for its initial arc, a Darwyn Cooke/Tim Sale collaboration whose concluding chapter was severely delayed).

Wolfman lays out the troubled history of the story in a two-page prose introduction, which in and of itself was interesting for its insight in what it's like to be an older/experienced writer in the field, the sometimes chaotic nature of what goes on behind-the-scenes at even one of the oldest and most staid pillars of comics publishing, and how challenging making comics can be.

While DC probably could have released this as a four-issue miniseries after the cancellation of Confidential or as a guest-arc in one of the Super-books, they had a relatively small window to do so. This was set in the earliest days of Superman's career, and was thus tied to his origin story, which changed so dramatically after Flashpoint/The New 52 that it was no longer relevant. Wolfman never explains exactly why DC decided to go ahead an print it in this format in spring of 2019 (although the origin this ties to seemingly "counts" again), but he is glad they did. He called it "arguably the best Superman story I ever wrote...and maybe one of the five best comics I've written." DC seems to be pleased with it too, as they followed the Super Spectacular release up with a more bookshelf-friendly Deluxe Edition last December.

I'm glad, too. Although I'm not as familiar with Wolfman's bibliography as perhaps I should be (I never even rad his Titans run with George Perez!), and thus can't weigh in on his claim as to whether or not this is one of his best scripts ever, I liked it an awful lot. His focus is on a period in Superman's career that has historically gotten little attention, the part just before he becomes Superman...so, like, the months directly before his own "Year One" story begins.

Clark Kent's time in Smallville has long been mined for material in various media, and obviously his time in Metropolis has. The part that I think is most interesting in his college years, as he obviously had to get a degree to become a reporter. Wolfman doesn't cover that, but he does focus on interesting (to me) things like why Superman wants to be a writer and what drew him to Metropolis. Here, it isn't just the original, Golden Age explanation that it allows him to keep up-to-date on various crimes and disasters needing his attention.

Wolfman and his artistic collaborator Claudio Castellini start with a nice, wordless, five-panel page in which we see the shadow of a man holding a suitcase on the fields of the Kent farm, and then a highway, and then on the globe atop the Planet, as Clark Kent literally arrives in Metropolis for the first time, and then gets his first crummy apartment, tries to adjust to big city life, tries to get his first journalism job at The Planet (or another city newspaper) and meanwhile works mopping floors (Gasp! My first job after college was on the cleaning crew at a mall! I lasted 11 days).

Meanwhile, we see Clark use his extraordinary superpowers in service of himself (checking in on Pete and Lana back in Smallville when he's sad) and others (helping a mark win his money back at three-card monte, bringing a fly ball toward the hands of his co-worker at a ball game, etc), while a very post-9/11 plot unfolds. There's a city election coming up, and the two men running in it are having a then much more timely debate about security vs. liberty regarding terrorism, and it becomes extremely relevant to Metropolis, given that a terrorist seems to be bombing buildings using some sort of high-tech drone-mounted explosives.

Superman tries to help without ever putting on his costume, something he's reluctant to do before he's 100% sure he's ready, which means we get a lot of images of Clark Kent flying around the city wearing a nylon stocking over his head like a bank robber, or a medical mask over his mouth (Wow, maybe this is more timely than I originally thought!) and suchlike. Unfortunately, many of his attempts to help half backfire, and he finds himself digging a hole as crackerjack reporter Lois Lane snaps a picture of him, and people start associating "The Flying Man" with the bombings.

Before the book is over, Clark will not only meet Perry White and Lois Lane, but also Lex Luthor, although he won't actually don his super-suitsave for a flashback to a fitting with his parents in Smallvilleuntil the last few pages, the readers only getting a look at it on the very last page.

Man and Superman reads an awful lot like Wolfman's attempt to write a definitive origin of Superman, one that cuts out the parts about his arrival on Earth that are hardly necessary repeating at this point, or maybe the first movie in a trilogy of Superman movies, although I imagine the climax would have been bigger and featured more of Superman in his super-suit to satisfy Hollywood producers and the audience were this really the basis of a film.

So despite my relative ignorance of Wolfman's at-this-point gigantic comics bibliography (most of his most popular writing pre-dates my reading of comics), I'll go ahead and agree this is one of his better comics (Does anyone out there in the reading audience have any suggestions of the best Wolfman comics? Particularly any Superman stories he's written?). That said, I disagree with him about Castellini's art.

Well, specifically Wolfman writes that "I think it's really obvious Claudio poured his heart and soul into this and his art is masterful." It may be that he poured his heart and soul into it, and while "masterful" is a much stronger word than I would use, it's also clear he's a dynamite superhero artist. The problem is, though, this is just barely a superhero comic, the vast majority of it featuring no costumes and nothing in the way of super-powers or even action, save for a scene here and there.

Nevertheless, Castellini draws it like it was a superhero comic, and so almost every time we see Clark Kent in his street clothes, his leg muscles are bulging through is pants, and his abs show through a button down shirt and a sweater. Lois Lane, like all of the other female characters, has a Barbie doll body, and she, like Clark, doesn't change clothes very often, and seems to spend the whole comic in a version of the purple skirt and blazer combo she wore on Superman: The Animated Series.

None of which is to say Castellini is bad or anything, but he seems a poor fit for a comic that is, for the most part, full of normal people doing normal people things. His background and supporting characters are all excellent, but he does little to hide the fact that Clark Kent and Lois Lane are superhero characters in a superhero comic, even if the story Wolfman is telling is leaning as far away from that as possible while still being about Lois and Clark.

All of which is only to say that while Man and Superman is pretty great, it's not a masterpiece or anything. Still well worth a fan's time though, if any haven't read it in the...year that it's been out now.

(One fannish quibble I didn't like? By having Lois Lane already clearly established as a successful Daily Planet reporter while Clark is still trying to score his first newspaper gig seems to imply that she's much older than him, and makes them seem less like peers than they usually do. Additionally, I'm not sure how I feel about Clark being the one to break the Superman story instead of Lois. I know this isn't the first time it's happened in any origin story or anything, but it feels like the kind of cheating that Superman would be reluctant to do. I think it would have been more interesting to have his work on the Luthor story be the one that gets him a job at the Planet, or maybe if he had written an expose of some kind based on his work in maintenance, or stemming from his friendship with one of those guys.*)


Mystery of Love In Space #1 (March 2019) For last year's Valentine's Day special, DC Comics added a secondary theme, riffing on the title of their long-running 20th century Mystery In Space anthology, and coming up with seven original 10-page stories involving both romance of one kind or another and an alien character of some kind or another. That more specific theme ended up spotlighting of some relatively minor characters, none of whom actually starred in their own titles at the time except, of course, for DC's most famous alien character, Superman. The other characters included are Bizarro, Hawkgirl, Kilowog, Space Cabbie, Crush (Lobo's daughter from the pages of Teen Titans) and Granny Goodness...along with some New Gods bad guys.

The best of this batch is definitely writer Jeff Loveness' Superman story "Glasses," which is actually a Lois Lane and Superman story (In fact, Lois gets top-billing on the credits page). In it, Lois Lane sits in front of her laptop, staring at her screen, and then glances over and sees Clark's glasses sitting there. She puts them on, looks at herself in the mirror and says, "...I'm such an idiot." The remainder of the story, beautifully drawn by Tom Grummett and Cam Smith, takes the form of a love letter of sorts that Lois writes to Superman, an extremely frank assessment of how she initially saw Clark Kent, how she grew to appreciate his more hidden attributes and eventually grew to love him, and then how she saw him once she learned his secret identity and was able to see the two distinct personas as a whole person.

It's a really smartly-written portrait of Lois Lane, of Superman and of Lois Lane and Superman, and a good one to keep in mind whenever DC publishes some sort of Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told kind of collections; in fact, this is at least the third such Superman and Lois story from one of these over-sized anthology specials I can think of that I'd truly consider a great comic. Unlike so many other characters, these two really lend themselves to the short story format, perhaps because so much is known about them that creators can focus their attention and spend their limited time and space on delving deeper into the characters' psychology.

None of the other six original stories really struck me as all that great, although there were certainly fun things about each. I liked how scary Jesus Merino made Jack Kirby's Granny Goodness design look while she menacingly ate a gigantic piece of meat (which, from its shape, sure looked like a human arm). I almost always enjoy reading Bizarro's dialogue, and trying to find the particular logic that the writer (here, Saladin Ahmed) chooses to assign it for said writer's story, his "backwards" talking being defined differently from story to story. I can't say I've ever wondered what Kilowog might wear on a date, or what he wears to bed, but thanks to Kyle Higgins and Cian Tormey, now I know.

Perhaps the strangest story is Aaron Gillespie and Max Raynor's Space Cabbie one, "GPS I Love You," in which the minor but fascinating character is reluctant to have an "Artificial Intelligence Directional Assistant" added to his beloved spaceship/cab, until the pair bond, and he realizes she's become part of his cab, and that A.I.D.A./his cab loves him as much as he loves it. Sort of like that Joaquin Phoenix movie Her, but not quite, I guess...?

Unlike past such holiday-themed anthologies, this one concludes with a reprint, a Gardner Fox-written, Mike Sekowsky-penciled story starring the most appropriate character for a sci-fi superhero romance in a book named after Mystery In Space, Adam Strange. His love interest (and future wife) Alanna of Rann appears within the story, but the focus isn't on their relationship. Instead, the story is called "The Planet and The Pendulum," and features a huge spaceship with a large pendulum made of "diamondium-- hardest of all metals", which it is attempting to use to slice through a dome protecting an alien city. It reads a lot like a story in which Fox and/or whoever edited the book at the time came up with a cool title and image, and then formed a story around it.


Ryuko Vol. 1 (August 2019) It was the Hard Case Crime logo in the upper left-hand corner of the cover that initially caught my eye, as I was used to seeing it attached to prose novels rather than graphic novels, and certainly not manga. I'm glad it did catch my eye, though, as this is a pretty great book.

Eldo Yoshimizu tells the story of Ryuko, a bad-ass yakuza boss exiled abroad and finally coming home to Japan in search of vengeance against her rivals for what they did to her family, and what they made her do to her family (That's her on the cover there). It opens with the title character accepting a briefcase full of gold to take and raise the infant daughter of the king of Forossyah, a fictional country by the Black Sea, just as his foes are closing in on him in a coup. It then jumps ahead to 18 years in the future, when that baby is now an 18-year-old girl, and she and her friend are in the middle of trying to pull off a spectacular train robbery...only to be foiled by their boss Ryuko, who stops them to pull off the robbery herself in an even more spectacular fashion.

Their headquarters are attacked by the military of the country, leading to a army guys vs. gangsters battle, after which Ryuko and her team escape back to Japan. There, Ryuko is chasing men down on her motorcycle, trying to threaten and/or beat the location of her kidnapped mother out of them, while her underlings investigate a club that leads to an extensive flashback to the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, in which young Ryuko was involved, though just a little girl.

Gun battles, hand-to-hand combat, car chases, explosions...there is a ton of action, and Yoshimizu renders it in at times blindingly thick storms of ink, when blows are thrown, or vehicles careen by or weapons go off. The intensity to all of the action scenes is powerful and overwhelming, the line-work reflecting the speed, violence and emotion of the moment. Most of the book takes place at what we might consider a conversational pace, but when someone gets in a fight, it feels like the reader is the one getting in a fight.

Yoshimizu's title character is thin, long-limbed and has a glossy cascade of long hair that follows her. She's also usually quite scantily clad in skimpy dresses that look like things models might wear in magazine shoots (her "day job" is that she runs a night club). For some reason, her adopted daughter, the princess of that fictional country, and her daughter's conspirator just wear bikinis most of the time...even when attempting train robberies (I don't know, maybe it's really hot in Forossyah...?).

There's a great deal of contrast between Yoshimizu's female and male characters, the former composed with relatively few lines, and therefore looking relatively thin, fragile and breakable...even when Ryuko and the others are clearly kicking ass (as a little girl, she slices the face of a yakuza boss in a moment of anger; a few years later, in Afghanistan, the pre-pubescent Ryuko drops an explosive into a Soviet tank from her leaping horse and, later, chops the head of a Soviet officer clean off with a sword). The men, by contrast, are almost all drawn with many lines, giving them a palpably gritty feel and an ugliness in contrast to the women. There are a few exceptions, like one of Ryuko's lieutenants, who looks positively girlish compared to many of the men they battle, and Nikolai, a Soviet defector Ryuko and her late father picked up in Afghanistan, looks somewhere in between, as if Yoshimizu is modulating the textures to show who we should root for, and how much, maybe...?

Like I said, I went into this with based on nothing more than a curiosity about it based on the logo, and, by the time I finished it, I couldn't wait to see what happened in volume 2, so in terms of a serial comic, it certainly did its job well.


The Spectre #15-#17, #19-#23, #25 and #27 (May 2002-May 2003) Despite the dates there, these comics haven't actually been gathering dust on one of my to-read piles for the last 17 years; I actually bought them shortly after Norm Breyfogle died, and I wanted to start tracking down the various Breyfogle-drawn comics I didn't already own. The majority of his run on the 2001-2003 volume of The Spectre being among those comics.

I had only read a handful of issues of this 27-issue series before (perusing the covers, I believe it was just #1-#3, #10 and #21-#23), which was written by J.M. DeMatteis and originally drawn by Ryan Sook, before Breyfogle took over. This volume of The Spectre is, of course, the one featuring not the original Jim Corrigan version, who retired from the role at the end of the previous, Ostrander/Mandrake 1992-1998 volume of the book, but the Hal Jordan version, after the ghost of Jordan became bonded with the Spectre force in 1999's Day of Judgement.

I personally liked Hal Jordan perfectly fine as the evil Parallax, perhaps in large part because I barely knew the character as Green Lantern before his heel turn, but the idea of a superhero forced to become the killer spirit of vengeance had a lot of potential too, and I kind of liked the weird design that hybridized Jordan's classic Green Lantern costume with the Spectre. Obviously, I must not have thought too much of the execution, though, as I missed so much of the book's relatively short run, and I guess not that many other people were overly enamored with it either, as DC let Geoff Johns de-couple Jordan from The Spectre and bring the most boring Green Lantern back to life in his Green Lantern: Rebirth series (Which I liked quite a bit, and thought did a pretty good job of resolving a lot of earlier questionable decisions without resorting to the reboot button).

It didn't take me too long reading this bundle of Spectre comics to remember why I wasn't that crazy about the tile, nor to imagine why it didn't last as long as, say, the previous Spectre. DeMatteis' scripting is both heavy and heady, full of metaphysical business and a peculiar form of New Age-y Christianity. That made what I read of the series these past few weeks extremely interesting, but not necessarily compelling.

That said, it probably didn't help that I started reading the series with issue #15, after Hal had decided to convert the Spectre from the Spirit of Vengeance to the Spirit of Redemption, and already had a status quo established. He lived in a temple in Utah with his human niece, was accompanied by the ghost of Green Lantern Abin Sur (the dying Green Lantern who gave him his ring) and had developed several strange powers, like the ability to biolocate and generate aspects of himself into different characters.

The art, of course, is amazing, and it was great fun seeing Breyfogle drawing characters other than the Batman family he is so associated with. This volume of The Spectre, like the one before it, also featured exceptional covers (though they often times were just beautiful images, disconnected from the content of the issues). Of these ones that I read during quarantine, the first three are by Dave Johnson, after which point P. Craig Russell takes over for the remainder.

The first three issues comprise what may be the most bizarre arc, involving a sort of Spectre Corps of aspects of The Spectre from all over the universe. They are apparently going mad, and when Hal goes deep into outer space to investigate, he is forced to face strange foes attempting to capture and conquer God and Creation, and Hal must wrestle with philosophical questions while deciding how to best save the universe. This one is full of pretty stunning imagery, and Breyfogle, inker Dennis Janke and colorist Guy Major present lots of aliens that are really, truly alien looking.

One of my favorite of these comics comes next, #19, a great done-in-one in which The Spectre appears in the slums of Armagetto on Apokolips in an attempt to rescue a young girl born there named Anomalie (get it?). In doing so, he acts like the old-school Spectre, growing into a gigantic skeleton armed with a scythe and slicing Parademons in half. He eventually faces Darkseid, and attempts to destroy the dark god, but he only reforms.
A sort of superhero meditation on the necessity of evil to balance good, it's a great introduction to Jack Kirby's Fourth World mythology, and one that offers an amusingly dark take on real life, as Anomalie is eventually banished from Apokolips by Darkseid, who dramatically punishers her not to death, but to life:
Death is easy! Death is an escape! Death is insufficient punishment! I condemn her to life! I condemn her to hope and struggle and despair! I condemn her to freedom and all its horrors!
Those words are juxtaposed with images of her appearing on Earth, where we see her struggling with poverty, eating food right out of a can, drawing in a crumbling apartment, walking down the street being harassed by men while clutching a portfolio, rejection letters swirling around her.

This issue is also full of great imagery, like Darkseid's entrance into a scene via a statue of him coming to life, and Breyfogle's particularly bleak take on Apokolips as a cross between a planet-sized prison and polluting factory, the borders of his panels made of chains, hooks, pipes and barbwire (New Genesis has panel borders made of what appears to be light, starbursting in the corners, while the scenes set elsewhere have regular panel borders with unadorned gutters).

That's followed by another particularly strong done-in-one issue, one that is told from the point-of-view of a man who seems to have a perfectly life, but keeps finding himself haunted by The Spectre, until things start to fall apart and he and the reader know what the green-robed figure is trying to tell him.

Issues #21-23 involve the temporary resurrection of Sinestro (who, remember, Hal had killed during Emerald Twilight), which happens just as Hal finds himself happily trapped in a dream world in which he had given up being Green Lantern long ago, and now lives happily with his wife Carol Ferris. Some of the participants in this dream world feel like something's wrong, though, and so Martian Manhunter and a pre-goatee Green Arrow investigate; by the climax, the entire Justice League makes an appearance...before Sinestro kills them all.

The ending of this book with final issue #27 seems a bit sudden, and it seems that DeMatteis still had other irons in the fire that never got as thoroughly explored and resolved as he might have liked. It did leave me wondering what ever happened to Hal's niece Helen after the events of Rebirth, as the series ends with Hal resolving to give her back to human being parents to raise her...and then deciding against it at the last moment, and keeping her with him.


Tamamo The Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories (April 2019) A sub-title reads "A Cautionary Fables & Fairytales Book," making this anthology the second in a series of such collections from Iron Circus Comics, following 2018's The Girl Who Married a Skull and Other African Stories. Within are 21 short comics adaptations of traditional stories, mostly from China, Japan and India, but also one a piece from Georgia, Iraq, Laos, Myanmar, Turkey and Tibet.

Some of these are familiar stories"The Monkey King," "The Ballad of Mulan", "The Tiger, The Brahmin and The Jackal"while many more feel familiar, in the way that they rhyme with, echo or include components that one has likely encountered in other, more familiar fairy tales from Europe. The same goes for the contributing creators; some names I'm quite familiar with (Nick Dragotta, Carla Speed McNeil, Gene Luen Yang), others less so, and many others were brand-new to me (After the last story, there's a nice five-page "About The Artists" section with a paragraph devoted to each, giving readers a good idea of where to look next if they liked what they saw from a particular artist).

Despite all being of the same basic genre of folk tales originating from the same (gigantic) continent, the style and tone of the stories vary quite a bit. Most are told quite straight, but some do unusual things, like Shannon Campbell and Lucy Bellwood's "#ENDOFTHEWORLD", in which Indian mythological characters Makara and Ganga go for a trip down the river, and Makara uses his cellphone throughout the adventure, tweeting updates.

I think my favorite story was probably Stu Livingston's "The Great Flood," which was reminiscent of Akira Toriyama's work in its never more than semi-serious tone, and, of course, it's super-strong, simple-minded boy hero (Not that Livingston's artork much resembles Toriyama's...although his dragon and Monkey King, seen just once, at least suggest it).

McNeil's "Two Foxes" was pretty fun too, as was Jason Caffoe's "Urashima Taro," which featured some truly spectacular imagery, particularly on page five, when its fisherman hero goes beneath the sea and sees three panels full of beautifully bizarre sights.

There are a few violent images, and at least one pretty scary story in Nina Matsumoto's "Hoichi the Earless" (Caitlyn Kurilich's "The History of The Spectre Ship" is a close second, though; Kurilich's art isn't as scary as Matsumoto's, but the content might have freaked out a much younger Caleb; as a child I also would have recoiled at a scene where a tiger gets buried alive, and another in which a bird has its tongue cut out). So the book might be a good all-ages one, depending on the sensitivity of the child in question, but certainly by, say, third or fourth grade, the content should be fine for any reader. And if you're a grown-up, as I assume you are in you're reading my blog, then you have nothing to worry about here.


Vampironica Vol. 1 (April 2019) The most significant drawback of this five-issue mini-series is one it shares with Jughead: The Hunger: Despite being published as a limited series, it requires a "fill-in" art team, so that the first three-fifths of the book is drawn and colored by Greg Smallwood, who co-writes with his sister Megan Smallwood, while the last two-fifths of the book is drawn by Greg Scott and colored by Matt Herms. The latter pair seem to attempt to match Smallwood's style fairly effectively, but it's still a record-scratching change, and one that is confusing and frustrating in what is essentially a standalone story like this.

Now I don't know how the sausage of modern comic books are made, and I'm sure there are business reasons why Archie might have published Vampironica #1 before Vampironica #5 was in the can, but, with a limited series, it seems to me like there shouldn't ever be a reason to have a fill-in art team. The publisher should either wait until its done to start publishing it, or they can delay the last few issues a few extra months, if the original artist has fallen so far behind schedule. I think that's more true than ever these days, when most people will encounter a comic book like this in the form of a collected trade paperback.

But, again, I don't know what contracts are signed and if Archie needs to ship a particular number of books each month or face some bad consequence or...what. But it is unfortunate, as it provides a major drawback to a book that otherwise wouldn't have had any drawbacks at all.

The first five pages are devoted to introducing Veronica Lodge, who is here both a vampire and vampire-slayer, shown here arriving at Cheryl Blossom's pool-side party just in time to save her sometimes-rival from a pair of vampires. The narrative then jumps back to show us how Veronica got her fangs, and how exactly she came to be a vampire-slayer.

It starts with a typical enough Archie Comics starting point. After football and cheer practice, Veronica asks Archie out, but he already has plans with Betty, so she settles instead for Reggie. Her evening gets far worse, however, when she's about to leave and finds her parents dead on the floor, with bite marks on their necks; the new client that her father was meeting with that night turns out to have been a vampire! He bites Veronica, but she manages to escape him...but not the curse his bite inflicts, so she too becomes a vampire.

Her unlikely ally turns out to be Dilton, who, being Riverdale High's all-around smart person, is able to give her an IV in the high school's boiler room and has books on vampires in his bedroom library. In a rather smart move, the Smallwoods build a rather specific form of the mechanics of vampires, dividing them into "moroi" and "strigoi." The former are servants of the latter, and, here, if the the strigoi is killed, then all of the moroi return to normal...and stay alive. This means that despite the "What If...?" nature of the story, it's a complete story, and has a "happily ever after" brand of ending in which the original, eternal Archie Comics status quo can be resumed.

The Smallwoods' script also has the benefit of staying truer to the characters than Jughead: The Hunger did, I thought (although the argument could be made that the radical breaks from some of those characters' traditional portrayals was kind of the point of those changes in The Hunger). For example, there was a scene in that other Archie horror comic where Veronica turns into a werewolf, bursting out of her clothes, and I thought at the time, "Well, I can't believe Veronica would ruin a perfectly good, no-doubt expensive and designer outfit, just because she's a werewolf now..." Here, Veronica feels much more like Veronica...and the same goes for all of the characters.

I liked Smallwood's art a lot, even though the shading applied to his characters in lieu of more solid, distinct lines is an aesthetic I'm not overly fond of, personally. Still, the designs are all great, he's superb at "acting" through his characters, and he's really quite good at making the Riverdale teens look like actual teenagers, rather than twentysomethings, which is actually pretty difficult to pull off. Of course, as I've already mentioned, he stops drawing after the third issue/chapter, at which point the style changes and the art gets a bit more murky and indistinct, although I'm not sure how much of that is due to the replacement of Smallwood and how much is due to the setting, as the climax takes place after dark, around the Blossoms' pool and in their darkened house and the Lodges' home.

All in all, this was pretty fun, if imperfect.


Wonder Woman #750 (January 2020) This 96-page special issue is basically what would have been Wonder Woman #84 in the current, 2016-launched, "Rebirth" initiative volume of the Wonder Woman character's ongoing series, but with an 80-page anthology anniversary special attached and the number more-or-less randomly inflated into a very high number for no particular reason that makes any sense to me. The format will be a familiar one by now. At $9.99, it has a spine an no ads, like the "prestige format" DC comics of old, but bigger; it's something of a hybrid between your average DC comic and a trade paperback.

As to why it's in this post rather than having appeared in January or even February's "A Month of Wednesdays" column...? Well, I started to read it, but couldn't keep going, so I set it aside until later. And well, now I've got lots and lots of time to catch up on books I wasn't as urgently interested in.

I blame the decision to cram a whole issue of writer Steve Orlando's ongoing run into this book (from what I can gather from comics.org, this seems to be the conclusion of one arc of his, and another has since started). So the first 22-pages are devoted to "The Wild Hunt: Finale" by Orlando, pencil artist Jesus Merino and inker Vicente Cifuentes. It opens with pages of a big fight scene involving The Cheetah (wearing Wonder Woman's tiara and wielding a pink, semi-transparent sword), Hera (who know looks like a generic blonde superhero, and whose costume has the starfield look of some of Donna Troy's past costumes) and, most surprising of all, The Silencer, the assassin character that John Romita JR introduced in her own title as part of the extremely short-lived "New Age of Heroes" suite of comics that spun out of Dark Nights: Metal (at least in terms of marketing, if not story).

I didn't see much here to recommend catching up on the previous parts of the arc, or continuing to read the next part of Orlando's run under the new numbering system, although I did see the word "Amazonium," which is a word I like.

This is followed by eight short stories, varying in length from 8-12 pages. By far my favorite of these was "Emergency Visit," written by the Diana: Princess of The Amazons writing team of Shannon Hale and Dean Hale and drawn by Riley Rossmo. Basically, Diana's mom and her aunts/sisters missed her, and so they released a hydra in an attempt to get her to come to their island home and visit them (Don't worry, it wasn't as dangerous and stupid a plan as it might seem in other contexts, as the Amazons can handle a hydra; "Also, hydra fights are fun!" one of the Amazons chimes in).

The Hales' script is a lot of fun too, particularly in the way Diana's mom and the others pepper her with questions that will feel familiar to any other adult who has ever talked to a parent, and there's a pretty great cameo by Green Lantern Guy Gardner. Oh, and Hippolyta's statement that she would totally be okay if Wonder Woman settled down with a man was pretty priceless ("Have you considered a hearthmate yet? I would very much like to see you paired with a fine, strong woman. Or man. It's not my place to judge!").

Rossmo's art, here colored by Ivan Plascencia, is as fantastic as always, and is by far the most distinct in the book. That is, there are a lot of great artists drawing great-looking stories in this, but no one's looks anything like his. His Wonder Woman is the biggest and most imposing, and is a sharp contrast to her mother, who next to her looks diminutive and even older, rather than the carbon copy of Wonder Woman she too often is. His hydra is an all-around great design too.
The other two stories I thought were particularly strong were both by past Wonder Woman writers, Gail Simone and Greg Rucka, both working with particularly great artists. Simone and Colleen Doran create a story about the aftermath of a team-up between Wonder Woman and a new, little girl superhero named Star-Blossom, in which Diana meets the girl's family, and Queen Hippolyta (looking like a goddess under Doran's costuming and design of her; see the image just below) joins them, and the parents bond over their shared concerns about their daughters leading dangerous lives (There's a weird gag about Minotaurs and dairy products that has really bugged me though, and I can't stop thinking about it; the best I can come up with is that they are using the word "Minotaurs" as a generic term for cow-people, but still...).
Rucka's story is drawn by Nicola Scott, whose work here looks better than I've ever seen it before, and in it Wonder Woman approaches Circe in an attempt to yet again try to cure The Cheetah; it's a nicely-written, beautifully-drawn story, but I do feel like I've read it before, not only during Rucka's most recent run on the character, but even Orlando's story from the beginning of the book references Diana's ongoing efforts.

What might end up being the most significant story is the one written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Bryan Hitch. It seems to star President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is giving a speech in 1939, despite his staff's fears that there's an assassin targeting him. There is, but Wonder Woman appears to save him and then introduces herself to him. The narrator, unseen until the very last panel, refers to her as "the first superhero," and, in that last panel, we see him looking at his green, lantern-shaped ring, which emits a green glow in the dark of a movie theater, where he's just seen a newsreel about the rescue.

Before Dan DiDio left DC, he and others have teased a(nother) new timeline for the DC Universe, and referenced Wonder Woman as "the first superhero." It makes me wonder if this particular story will end up being canonical in the next new continuity/history of the DC Universe, and that Wonder Woman will have taken the place of Superman or The Crimson Avenger, being the character who inspires the other Golden Age superheroes to come out of the shadows and form the latest version of The Justice Society of America.

The version of the JSA that appeared in Snyder's own Justice League didn't have a Wonder Woman in it, so this would seem to indicate another cosmic rebooting/resetting. I'm...not crazy about Diana beginning her career in the 1940s. Golden Age Wonder Woman is, of course, the best Wonder Woman, but I don't think she fits into the architecture of the greater DC Universe best that way, as it essentially removes her from the little friend circle of The Trinity that DC has spent so much time building up since the last time she was removed from being Batman and Superman's peer (during the first Crisis), and it would position her as the equivalent of their grandmother...or great-grandmother, depending on how young they're supposed to be in the present. I'm just guessing about this story's significance at this point though. We'll see.
Between these and the remaining four stories are a series of six pin-ups, my favorite of which was definitely Ramona Fradon's (above), although I did like Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's quite a bit as well.



*Actually, I think the coolest thing would be if Clark Kent spent a year or two writing at the Cleveland Plain Dealer before getting an interview with the Planet, and that way his real-life home could have played a small role in his fictional origin story too. Maybe Brian Michael Bendis can work that in when and if he takes a crack on Superman's ever-shifting origin story.