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.

2 comments:

Joan said...

Re: Cheshire Crossing- I believe you meant institutions at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, not "at the turn of the 18th century into the 19th" (which would be much more Gothic). Also, you're right that the art doesn't look much like Sarah Andersen's Sarah's Scribbles, but it does looks a lot like Fangs, a webcomic she started late last year. So maybe her art is evolving in that direction? I like Fangs a lot, but hopefully Sarah's Scribbles keeps looking the way it does.

Fangs

Caleb said...

You're right! I fixed it in the post; thanks for pointing it out, and for the info on Fangs.