by Matthew Peckham
What you're looking at is a compilation of one week's worth of comics, selected variably, listed alphabetically, and sorted
by week of release. Bear in mind that it is a mere fraction of what's happening in this market today. For a complete list of
what's hitting newsstands at comic shops near you, you should check the
Diamond Shipping Lists or grab a copy of
Don't look for frequent reviews of the more popular stuff here, e.g. Spider-Man or Batman, X-Men or JLA -- they get plenty of attention at the mainstream sites you can link to through our handy comics index. Instead, we'll be dipping into a combination of the low-print mainstream and independent, alternative, web-comic, and small press stuff.
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Arrowsmith is an original side project from award-winning Astro City writer Kurt Busiek set in a gothic alternate history version of the First World War, a steampunk environ with arcane magic replacing mustard gas and floating squads of soldiers with shoulder-perching mini-dragons subbing for Sopwith Camels. "Tomorrow's Dawn" wraps the first six-issue story arc, which introduced us to Fletcher Arrowsmith, a young idealistic American with that very familiar rose-colored lust for war steeped in a naïve sense of patriotism. You can probably guess where this one's going.
Busiek, innovative writer that he has been, takes few risks here, telling about as straight a tale as they come, relying on the period, jargon, and Carlos Pacheco's brilliant art to carry it above average reading fare. After running away from home to enlist against his parents' wishes, Fletcher quickly discovers war's not all it's cracked up to be, and in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front and Platoon, has several psyche-shattering experiences that, coupled with the death of his dearest friends, lead him to conclude that war is a sort of force which exists independent of the combatants, a creature in its own right that must be fed with the emotional zealousness of the blind and hateful.
"Tomorrow's Dawn" is mostly an anti-climactic wrap-up of last issue's big fireworks show, where Arrowsmith and his troop unleashed the magical equivalent of the Dresden firebombing on a Prussian town called Holbrück, killing allies and enemies alike. Recoiling from the horror of what he has participated in, Arrowsmith spends most of this issue (with epistolary narration) elucidating the finer points of both his guilt and mystification with the mindless blood sport of mass conflict.
Carlos Pacheco comes to the project a seasoned vet, who has done impressive work on Fantastic Four, Avengers Forever, and X-Men, and his sense of perspective is really terrific here, giving us wide two-page micro-detailed shots of wrecked smoldering churches and husked flying beasts caught in muddy, rain-lashed landscapes. The panel work is admirably cinematic, zipping from low close shots to high corner wall angles that add nuances like a mutilated crucifix towering over diminutive human forms, or shots of Arrowsmith leading the remains of his troop home that emphasize the common soldier in low-angle perspective over the classic high shot looking down of some heroic leader.
While it certainly resonates with current political events, the overall story is good old fashioned pulp fun, albeit a bit predictably existential in its "war is hell" tortured soul-searching. Busiek intends to follow with another mini, Arrowsmith: Behind Enemy Lines, which Busiek says will likely feature Arrowsmith "experiencing the tender mercies of a prisoner-of-war camp and learning more about the true nature of war." Its innovative success will depend largely on its ability to break from the conventionality of the straightly played "innocence lost" theme, but if Pacheco's along for the ride, it'll be hard to turn down whatever form it takes.
Peter Conrad wants to get you hooked on the latest issue of Attempted Not Known, and I mean literally. He has gone so far as to turn words and images into an extremely familiar little box that fits in your front pocket (or up your muscle-shirt sleeve if you're too cool for school) and joy of joys, using it won't make your clothes smell like you just took a roll in an ash pit. I'm talking about "20 Class A Comic Strips."
Only the smoothest, most aromatic ideas are used in the hand-crafting of these rich domestic comics. The world's darkest inks are blended and applied to a creamy white paper stock in a secret process, resulting in the world-class smoothness Attempted Not Known made famous.Pushing innovation in an entirely new and exciting direction, Mr. Conrad has produced the ninth issue of his quirky metaphysical comic into a cigarette box... literally. Bearing the ages old golden tassel (that amusingly still says "Marlboro") this issue unwraps just like a pack of smokes, and when you flip up the lid, you're treated to twenty mini-comics designed collectively to look like several dozen cigarettes, filters poking cutely over the front lip.
Eschewing trendy messages or flashy art, Attempted Not Known #9 uses four-panel segments that collectively form a powerful examination -- and indictment -- of the tobacco culture. There's the smoking child detected by his mother during a phone call, the physicians who advises an emphysema patient to quit smoking before stepping out to have a quick one herself, a pair of experimental grade-schoolers salvaging and taping butts together, and several engagements of the sense of "glamour" or "cool" that still accompanies the habit for many early or first-time puffers. Interspersed between the straightforward bits are a handful of abstract panels that range from morbidly comic to powerful noir sequences, revealing Conrad's dexterous artistic and narrative range. The line work consists of simple black inks on white in single panels running four pages each, but varies stylistically from thick surreal sketches, to a minimalist alternative look, to cartoony bits that wouldn't be out of place in the dailies.
Conrad's work here has all the maturity and poignancy of a pro. There's simply not a single one of these twenty minis that could be described as trite, clichéd, overly preachy, or boring, and that's saying a lot for something with such obvious cross hairs. If you're trying to kick the habit, you might in fact consider carrying a pack of Attempted Not Known #9 in your pocket in lieu of Joe Camel. Healing art? Who knows, but for smokers, health nuts, or the formerly nicotine-stained, this pack's for you.
Approaching its 200th issue, Hellblazer is a horror comic about a perpetually thirty-something trench coat-touting leather-lunged smartass mage who looks like Sting and Rutger Hauer's love child. Considered an A-grade Vertigo proving ground for some of the idiom's leading talent (Gaiman, Morrison, Milligan, Moore, Delano, Azzarello), it's an intensely personal story about a wandering British anti-hero and occult guardian of sorts who, despite his skill with magic, usually survives on his wit alone -- or in spite of it.
"Ward 24" follows the five-part "Staring at the Wall" story arc, which served up extra helpings of Lovecraftian magic and jaunts to the netherworld before tying off a bevy of plot threads. This issue finds John Constantine wandering the post-apocalyptic streets of London in the midst of crisis cleanup, apparently suffering from amnesia. He encounters a young girl fishing (presumably in or near the Thames) with a burned arm and takes her to a nearby hospital, where he himself ends up in a bed to treat a neck wound, which in turn lands him in the psych ward for his apparent memory loss. Along the way he bumps into an individual whose psychic powers allow him to read the dark map of an individual's past, but failing to translate Constantine, turns on him before dashing off for what will inevitably be a future encounter.
While the last several dozen issues have pitted a self-assured Constantine against waves of external forces, this issue turns things inward, revealing a fractured psyche. A friend once jokingly mused that Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard, would have long since mentally imploded and "gone jelly" after going through the ordeals that show's writers scripted. After all of John's mind-blowing experiences, Carey seems to be saying it's time for a serious look into what makes John Constantine tick, what's to be made of a life of "tears and curses, blood and broken glass."
My Hellblazer background is spotty at best, an amalgam of story arcs I've jumped on and off the title with, so no doubt there's subtext here in terms of the characters I'm missing. If you happen to visit Jim McMahon's Straight to Hell fan site, you'll discover speculation that the young girl Constantine boy-scoutishly takes to the hospital to treat her burned arm may be Ellie, a succubus from John's past (last appearance in Hellblazer #128) with a serious chip on her shoulder. Like his other works, Carey's stories are filled with tributes to a bit of everything. There's the Windsor McCay Little Nemo statue on Dr. Miles Bradshaw's office desk, a reference to Winston Churchill's comments about Russia delivered in a 1939 radio address, a rather amazing one-page montage of well-known and obscure entities from John's bizarre past, a possible Sting tribute (Constantine gives his name as "Leo Sumner" to the medical staff), and homage to Hellblazer fans John McMahon and Adrian Brown, listed as Constantine's aliases on a police file gracing Tim Bradstreet's cover.
There are a few technical glitches, like John's neck wound repeatedly referenced in the text but not visualized, and Manco's art, good as it is, sometimes compresses the faces a bit too much, making them squarish and, in a few shots, John looks more like an oak-necked linebacker than his usual lanky self. Otherwise this is a very solid issue, veering off in a completely new direction from anything Carey's delivered since taking over the series with #175. The dialogue is particularly strong, with great lines like "I hate guns... killing someone with a gun -- that's like shagging with a rubber on," or "There's a place -- I think it's in hell... a city... with a river running through it" (the latter quote is set against one of the more visually arresting panel sequences I've encountered in the series, and a terrific definitive shot of John).
Hellblazer fans don't need my thumbs up or down to keep the torch lit, and that an average 15,000 circulation monthly Vertigo series has nearly hit 200 issues is testament alone to both DC and its readership's commitment to the character, but new readers looking for a gritty horror noir book should consider this an excellent time to jump onboard and see what the venerable series spawned from Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing is all about.
Starter issues are always tough to review because they're so busy planting seeds that critiquing for lack of forward momentum is more of a betting game than anything else (bet this pans out, bet that doesn't) and Antony Johnston's Nightjar is full of appealing prose and promise, but there's no real hook or pizzazz in these first twenty-two pages, which instead end up floating forward instead of running.
Nightjar is about Mirrigan Demdyke, who witnessed the violent (literal) explosion of her father's heart in their backyard eighteen years ago. Mirrigan's father was Emperor Of All The Birds, the most powerful sorcerer in Britain, and it turns out that the manner of his death is simply how the group arranges successions. But on her deathbed, Mirrigan's grandmother reveals that not one but seven sorcerers were involved in his death, thereby implying conspiracy and murder. Mirrigan swears an oath to uncover the cabal and have her vengeance, and the book's central motif is born.
In "As The Seasons Turn," (the plot events above are detailed in Alan Moore's Yuggoth Cultures, a three-issue miniseries released from Avatar Press in 2003), Mirrigan visits her mother in a nursing home, then turns to her friend Brian and his gang of hippies to kick back and enjoy herself for the rest of the first issue. Interspersed are a few obscure interludes with various flavors of bad guys mumbling in rhyme and generally looking menacing. Johnston's writerly skills are serviceable, his dialogue is refreshingly concise, and the only nitpick is a bit of rhyming later in the book that's awkward and comes off stilted instead of sinister. The problem with this issue is that it simply doesn't move much, and even in the sedentary scenes, the dialogue isn't particularly interesting or insightful considering the "based on characters created by Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot" tag line. All told, we're introduced to well over a dozen notable characters here stretched thin across four distinct narrative threads, which when you're averaging just four panels per page is asking a lot from a reader in serial format.
The black-on-white art of Max and Sebastian Fiumara ranges from interesting to mediocre; Greg Waller's color work on the wraparound cover certainly resonates well with the Fiumara's line work, but the interior is a blend of powerful visualizations, like the first page of the Blason sequence, and oddly disproportionate line work elsewhere, like the early scenes in Brian's house with inconsistent visual character work that doesn't seem intentional (though this can probably be attributed somewhat to the warming up process).
As things stand, it's probably not a good idea for newcomers to jump in without grabbing Yuggoth Cultures to avoid feeling completely lost, but even Alan Moore mainstays may want to wait a few issues to see how this one plays out before picking it up.
Perhaps Ellis has a sense that this book in particular is something that can't suffer deadlines, and the delays between the last few issues have been told in years, not mere weeks or months. Thank goodness, because what we have to date are nineteen issues of sequential art that's as nearly perfect as perfect gets in any narrative form. Clearly this is a story Ellis is content to tell on his own terms, and kudos to Wildstorm for giving him the levity to do it.
Elijah Snow is the leader of a small group of exceptionally talented individuals known as Planetary, an exclusive and clandestine organization that specializes in "archaeology of the unknown," an investigation into the secret history of the planet. Years ago, Snow stumbled onto the existence of a group known as the Four and had his memory erased. His memory recently restored, Snow has begun a campaign to bring down the Four, and the series is currently due to tie this off for good or ill with issue #25.
Most of the Planetary stories are self-contained tales involving the uncovering of some fundamentally revisionary truth about the nature of existence, such as the fabric of reality being part of a multiverse contingent upon a snowflake with exactly 196,833 permutations, a manned spacecraft launched long before Sputnik in 1851 that returns to earth with its dead occupants some 150 years later, or a top secret trip to a human-created fictional world to retrieve one of its fictional inhabitants. In "Mystery in Space," an enigmatic object is discovered orbiting out at forty times the distance from the earth to the moon. Snow, who is over one-hundred years old, and whose talent involves the subtraction of heat from any physical substance, brings his colleagues Jakita Wagner (possesses super strength, speed, and durability) and The Drummer (has the ability to communicate with machines at the digital level) to a top secret holding location containing a group of creatures called "angels," lithe information collectors with very limited brains that were discovered when they "came down on" Germany in the thirties. Snow launches the angels at the space object in a ruse designed to flush out one of the Four, using a spacecraft from a failed alien invasion in 1951.
Our current belief is that the craft's engine is an informational drive. There's a theory that the universe's underpinning is information, not matter and energy. Matter and energy move in volume, but the informational capacity of the universe has been found to rely only on surface area. That means that the universe is two-dimensional. Matter, energy, time, you, me and the floor are holograms. Everything in volume is an expression of a two-dimensional plane of information. What this vessel does is employ what you might call a scoop, that digs into the informational plane and rewrites local conditions to produce thrust. What you're seeing in the ejecta, young man, is the new code being jettisoned and the plane restoring itself.Dr. Kwelo's narration during a panel sequence which illustrates the "motion" of the spacecraft is just a brief example of Ellis's signature style, a continuous flux of quasi-physics that re-maps conventional science to abstract speculation, perhaps qualifying it as "contemplative" or "meditative" fiction with its loose science-fantasy thrust. In the same way that Miéville's New Weird can be like a trip through Madame Toussaud's wax museum on acid, Planetary is fascinating and often electrifying because of its outlandishness. At the book's core is a straightforward Dickian memory lost and regained revenge tale, but so bespeckled with bizarre bric-a-brac that each issue is like an episode of Ripley's Believe It Or Not draped in pulp with a little lopsided Einstein sprinkled on for garnish.
John Cassaday's art is blockbuster from the opening shots of the earth receding from view to be replaced by the mysterious splintered cylindrical object, to a five or six panel sequence near the end that marries a "hollow earth" motif to Jonathan Swift's Lilliputian Gulliver, which coupled with the information assimilating angels may in turn be a sort of tribute to Marvel Comics' The Watcher (a being residing on the moon who catalogues the history of humanity) and Galactus (an enormous planet devouring godlike alien being), though as usual its impossible to say for sure. Laura Martin's colors are divine, and in keeping with the rest of the series, play with nuances of light and shading that elevate Planetary to one of the best and most mature looking comics on the market anywhere.
Restrained, innovative, and just plain smart, you're missing out on comics history if you're not reading Planetary.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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