My Top Ten Comics of 2012

We’re back a bit earlier this year, so apologies to any groundbreaking comic that comes out of nowhere in the last two weeks of December and blows me away.  This marks the third time I’ve run this feature on my blog, which I guess makes it a tradition of sorts.  There’s been an interesting shift in the tides as far as my comic reading goes.  Last year I spoke of DC’s dominance in my reading list, but one year on and the new car smell has faded from much of DC’s New 52.  The very best of the bunch are still going strong, but my DC reading list has thinned considerably in 2012, with yet more titles still hovering on the precipice of being dropped.  Marvel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a slight resurgence, with me sampling and enjoying a few of the Marvel NOW! launches and jump-on points.  But the big story of this year for me has been Image, who have been on a real roll, launching intriguing new titles left and right throughout the year and enjoying perhaps their best year ever.  Taking everything into account, the field of contention for the year’s best comics is so strong that, as of the writing of this intro, there are several comics still in the running to claim the #10 spot.  One honourable mention that was incredibly close to inclusion on the list was Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic, one of the best debuts of the year.  The only thing holding it back from a top 10 inclusion was that, with only two issues released, I thought I needed to see more of the series before I could fairly judge its merits in the context of a whole year.  Maybe in the 2013 list! Will the New 52 debuts that leapt into the top 10 last year retain their placement on the list?  Will the mighty Scalped emerge as the winner for the third year in a row?  Read on and find out!

10.  FATALE

Fatale3aThe first Image comic to make the list, but not the last.  Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito.  After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next.  What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre.  Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc.  The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere.  The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her.  The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along.  It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell.  The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins.  Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.

9.  CHEW

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After dropping out of the list last year, Chew makes a return to the top ten.  There was never really any substantial drop in quality; this offbeat series about a near-future world populated by various strange and delightful characters with food-based powers has always remained a consistently fun read, but perhaps that made it easy to take for granted as shiny new titles vied for my attentions.  But with the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market.  Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying.  But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman.  With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare.  But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology.  We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half.  But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.

8.  WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN

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I’ll confess, I’m shamefully late to the Wolverine and the X-Men bandwagon.  I almost picked it up at the beginning.  But that was when my interest in Marvel was at its lowest ebb, and when DC’s New 52 was making big demands on my pull list, and one of my favourite writers, Jason Aaron, was launching two new Marvel titles – Wolverine and the X-Men and The Incredible Hulk – in the same week.  I didn’t want to add more than one new Marvel comic to my monthly reading list.  So I chose The Incredible Hulk.  Now, I quite enjoyed Aaron’s run with the Green Goliath, it had some engaging ideas behind it.  But based on the tidal wave of positive feedback I’d been hearing for Wolverine and the X-Men, I began to suspect I may have made the wrong choice.  My decision to sample issue #19, billed as the Marvel NOW! “jumping-on point” for new readers, confirmed it.  Fun and accessible – two words I haven’t typically associated with X-Men comics – the strength of the issue encouraged me to pick up the previous few issues at my LCS, which included Wolverine and the X-Men #17, the Doop issue drawn by Mike Allred, perhaps one of my favourite single comics of the year.  That sealed the deal.  I went back to the start, and have been gorging myself on collected editions and back issues to get caught up.  What I love about this series is that every character earns their place.  No one is here because they were popular during Claremont’s run or whatever.  This is an ensemble piece, and every character – be they student or teacher – has something to contribute.  Which brings me to perhaps my favourite aspect of the series: the return to the school dynamic, previously crucial to the appeal of the X-Men franchise, but all too often overlooked amidst the more general superheroics.  I might have been late to the party, but better late than never!

7.  SWEET TOOTH

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Much like Chew, Sweet Tooth is a series that has been consistently great each month since its beginning, but which slipped from my top ten last year, only to return to the rankings in 2012.  In the case of Sweet Tooth, the fresh burst of momentum has come from the title’s impending conclusion.  Over the course of this year, all the plot threads have been getting drawn together and paid off, with – as of the writing of this list – only one issue remaining before the whole series is wrapped up.  Jeff Lemire has been doing very well with his work in the DCU, but this post-apocalyptic drama about a young animal/human hybrid boy, a battle-hardened old man, and their travels through a wasteland ravaged by a global pandemic – both written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist – remains his best ongoing series.  And it’s a title that I feel has long been unfairly overlooked.  It is so well-crafted, filled with heart and characters you care about, and Lemire does some really interesting, ambitious things with his art, his layouts, and at times even the very structure of the comic itself.  I’ve talked a lot about what a void in my comics-reading life the end of Scalped will be, but I might be almost as sad to see Sweet Tooth go.  On the plus side, I’ll be first in line to check out Trillium, Jeff Lemire’s follow-up Vertigo project in 2013.

6.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic.  I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan.  I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold.  But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try.  I’m glad I did.  Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!”  And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal.  This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done.  I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive.  A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.

5.  SCALPED

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What’s this!?  Scalped at last toppled from the number one spot!?  I assure you, its lower placing on the list year is down to the insane quality of the comics above it, rather than any decline in the series itself, which came to an end this year.  The year in Scalped began with the dramatic conclusion to the “Knuckle Up” story, before segueing into “Trail’s End”, the final storyline that brought the saga’s major storylines to a head while still managing to leave a few tantalising loose ends dangling at the end.  This final victory lap made for some highly rewarding reading for loyal Scalped readers, as some of the catastrophic events we’ve been waiting to inevitably happen for years finally took place.  But even as the end drew near, Scalped never felt like it had checked out early.  “Trail’s End” immediately threw us off-kilter by picking up after a leap forward in time, with the status quo of several characters suddenly shifted and us left playing catch-up.  And from there, Jason Aaron steadily turned the screw and built up a sense of dread and uncertainty where, even right up to the last issue, we weren’t sure how it was all going to end, who would live and who would die.  There ended up being quite a few surprises with the way all that worked out.  And one of the biggest joys of Scalped this year is that, if I can recall, all the issues released in 2012 were drawn by the mighty R.M. Guera, who added so much to the rough, rugged aesthetic of the book.  It will be greatly missed, and my 2013 Top Ten Comics list will feel emptier for its absence, but Scalped has, for my money at least, cemented its status as one of the greatest comic books of all time.

4.  IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN

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There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain.  Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012.  Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn.  The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell.  By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year.  Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013.  I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns.  The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it.  If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list.  BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)

3.  BATMAN

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Last year I predicted that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s fantastic work on Batman would earn the comic a high placement on this year’s list, despite the book not placing in the 2011 top ten: I opted to go for Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics instead, since the Batman run had at that point just begun.  Sure enough, here it is.  In the intervening 12 months, Batman has emerged as unquestionably the crown jewel of the New 52, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality.  The Bat-titles are strong in general right now – I currently read and enjoy Batman & Robin, Detective Comics and Batman Inc – but Batman reigns supreme.  The year got off to a blistering start for the title, with Batman #5 soaring out of the gates as an early contender for the best single comic book of 2012, not to mention one of the best single issues of an ongoing Batman comic I’ve ever read.  Featuring Batman trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls and gradually losing his mind, with trippy, boundary-pushing artwork by Greg Capullo, this saw Batman pushed to the brink of defeat and despair in a way that shocked many readers.  This was the high watermark for the “Court of Owls” saga, and though it might have faltered slightly in the last chapter or two, for the most part “The Court of Owls” was a textbook example of how to tell a gripping, high-stakes Batman epic.  And now it looks like the all-star creative team is set to top it with “Death of the Family”, the currently-unfolding storyline featuring the hotly-anticipated return of The Joker.  Scott Snyder has done a stellar job of injecting a sense of genuine danger and peril into the “illusion of change” world of superhero comics, crafting nightmare scenarios where even jaded comics readers are left on the edge of their seats wondering how the hell Batman can possibly prevail.  And Greg Capullo is giving us perhaps the finest work of his celebrated career.  If Batman can maintain this dizzyingly high standard, I fully expect it to rank highly on next year’s list as well.

2.  SAGA

Saga4aIt has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is.  I’ve read the first issue several times now.  I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1.  Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad.  Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come.  The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics.  Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest.  But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before.  No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels.  But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest.  And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!?  Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012.  As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium.  So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm.  This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others.  When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void.  I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.

1.  THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list.  Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it.  It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed.  Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites.  So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year.  And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book.  It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart.  While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images.  Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting.  I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment.  And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia.  Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story.  But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart.  Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale.  I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics.  But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.

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REVIEW: Swamp Thing #7

At this stage, I imagine it goes without saying that Swamp Thing #7 features the long-awaited return of the title character.  I mean, it’s on the cover.  So, most of us knew going in that this latest instalment of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s New 52 relaunch would give us the much-delayed moment that even those who have thought the book to be otherwise perfect have been clamouring for, and for that it was always going to rate highly.  Buth both Snyder and Paquette do more than simply give the readers what they want.  That happens too, of course, but Swamp Thing #7 manages to exceed even lofty expectations and emerge as a truly stunning comic, possibly the best in the series so far.

Over the course of what is basically a single extended scene, Scott Snyder condenses the key themes and ideas that have been explored over the preceding 6 issues into a single chapter that will serve as both a pivotal turning point in the larger narrative, and a mission statement for Snyder’s whole interpretation of the Swamp Thing mythos.  Snyder’s Swamp Thing is a story of choice VS destiny, and you could make a case for both claiming victory here.  Since the relaunch, we’ve been told that becoming Swamp Thing has always been Alec Holland’s destiny, and that his attempts to escape this fate were futile, and here, indeed, the prophecy is fulfilled.  But we also see that, this time round, Alec Holland is not a victim of fate, but rather an active participant in his own transformation.  And as Abigail Arcane battles against her own transformation, it becomes apparent that this choice VS destiny theme will continue to play out as the story enters its next phase.

On the subject of Abigail, one of the other key themes of the series is love, and its ability to overcome impossible odds.  Alan Moore’s seminal run on Swamp Thing was, at its core, a love story, and I’m glad this element has been maintained.  While Moore set up obstacles of distance between Swamp Thing and Abby, first sending Swamp Thing on missions around the world and then sending him to the far reaches of the universe – with the goal of being reunited with his love always what drove him – Snyder’s obstacle is more abstract, but arguably much harder to overcome.  Just as Alec Holland is the avatar of life, Abigail Arcane has been summoned as the avatar of death.  The two are sworn enemies, and have always meant to be so.  We get ominous glimpses of the monstrous creature Abigail is becoming throughout this issue, foreshadowing the heartbreaking conflict that lies ahead.  But even so, it is still Abigail that Swamp Thing is fighting for, still that desire to be reunited with her that drives him.  “I’m doing it for her,” are his final words as a human.

The motif of death and rebirth – and how the two are linked – is also given enhanced attention here, obvious even from that beautiful front cover.  How much do the designs surrounding Swamp Thing remind you of a butterfly?  In the issue itself, Alec Holland’s body (and indeed, Abigail Arcane’s body also) is housed in a cocoon while his transformation takes place.  In the previous issues we’ve seen much of the encroach of death and decay, but the final image of this issue is that of flowers blooming: from death springs life.  In his argument with the dying Parliament of Trees, Holland suggests that The Green is not too different from The Rot.  Life and death may be in constant struggle, but they complement one another.

I’ve said all this, without even getting into Yanick Paquette’s astounding artwork.  It’s interesting how, even when talented artists fill in for him, Paquette’s return to the book after an issue’s absence always feels like an act of triumphant restoration.  This is how Swamp Thing is supposed to look.  But Paquette pushes his invention to a whole new level this issue, with every page becoming a jawdropping, meticulously-crafted tableau.  Traditional panel borders are abandoned altogether in favor of lush vines and floral patterns doing battle with the black, splotchy chaos of The Rot.  The images themselves are surprisingly packed with detail, demanding to be lingered over, savoured.

Though the whole issue is gorgeous, undeniably the standout visual sequence is the aforementioned transformation.  In a collection of wince-inducing extreme close-ups, we see various parts of Alec Holland’s body – inside and out – being converted by The Green, the images getting smaller and more tightly packed as the transformation picks up pace.  And then it all culminates in a pageturn reveal that is sure to become an instantly iconic image.  Though the experimental tableaus Paquette has liberally employed throughout the book often feel like splash pages, in this instance here when he actually uses a full page splash, the impact is like a gut-punch.

It’s also worth emphasizing again how much the rich, vibrant colors of Nathan Fairbairn enhance Paquette’s artwork.  In Holland’s dialogue with the Parliament of Trees, the deep shades of green and orange make the pages feel like they are teeming with life.  And on the flipside, our glimpses of the Kingdom of Bones become laced with an almost tangible pestilence, that richness of tone turning sickly sweet when shifting to a palette of reds and yellows.  Snyder and Paquette have been showered with much well-deserved praise, but Fairbairn just might be the unsung hero of Swamp Thing.

This is a title that has ranked near the top of DC’s output since the month of its debut, but with Swamp Thing #7, the creative team raise their game.  This feels like a culmination of all that has been brewing in the series over the past six months.  But more than that, it makes those excellent first 6 chapters feel like little more than a prelude, suggesting that the stage has been set for a truly epic saga to unfold.  Swamp Thing truly is back.

REVIEW: Batman #3

As hard as it may be to believe, not everyone is in love with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.  Those who have been reading my reviews will know I’ve been highly vocal in my praise for the first two issues of the relaunched series, and that I’d rank it as the best of the current Bat-titles, a field that’s actually proven to be pretty competitive.  But I’ve talked to a couple of people who have expressed disappointment, saying that after the dark, psychological tone of Snyder’s Detective Comics run, Batman has felt more like standard blockbuster superhero fare.  Those critics might be more satisfied with the sinister turn the narrative takes in this third chapter.  With the steady build in dread over the course of the issue, Batman #3 is paced a lot like a horror story.

Scott Snyder has been very methodical with his pacing and his plotting, but now the pieces are falling into place and the scope of the threat Batman faces is starting to become apparent.  In my review of the last issue, I talked about how Batman’s utter confidence in his deductive skills and his knowledge of Gotham City was being reframed by Snyder as a kind of hubris, an inability to accept that there could be anything at work in Gotham beyond his understanding.  That very much comes to the fore here, and though we do get an excellent action scene set in an underground railway tunnel, for the most part the challenge to Batman here is a cerebral one, and this is a case that will push his deductive abilities as “the world’s greatest detective” to the limit.

The threat of the Court of Owls is almost entirely off-panel in this issue.  They are built up through insinuation and recollection of old folklore and superstition, rather than a physical presence.  But in spite of this – no, because of it – they are built up to be a terrifying threat.  For now at least, they are intangible, unknowable, and, as a result, unfightable.  Snyder draws once more from his Big Book of Trivia to Make You S**t Yourself to come up with some unsettling facts about owls – they are natural predators of bats, they take the nests of rival birds rather than building their own – that when applied to the context of the story make them seem even more formidable as a foil for Batman.  The closing sequence of the issue really hammers home how omnipresent the Court of Owls are, and how deeply ingrained they are not just to the history of Gotham, but to the Waynes.  And the ranting of Alan Wayne in the flashback to 1922 that opens the issue – “Their nests are all around!  They’re in my home!  My home!” – foreshadows that their influence could soon prove to be even more uncomfortably intimate, and the old nursery rhyme’s warning that, “They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed” could turn out to be eerily accurate.

Indeed, if there’s any small complaint I have with the narrative of Batman #3, it comes with the final page.  At first, I thought the second last page was the end, and that was satisfying.  The revelation of how far-reaching this menace was, and the challenge Batman faced in getting to the bottom of it, ended things on a note of quiet dread that really left me wanting more.  But then I turned the page, and was met with a rushed, cheap cliffhanger that I really don’t think the issue needed.  I can appreciate the reasoning behind it, though, and it wasn’t enough to hurt my overall enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfectly structured instalment of this saga.

Once again, the art of Greg Capullo is stunning.  In fact, this could very well be his finest work on the series thus far.  His work has always been slick and stylish, but here Capullo really starts experimenting with his layouts and angles in a way that makes this a visually dense, rich reading experience.  The inventive layout of having the various Wayne buildings in the Gotham skyline framed inside a guilded owl’s eye was striking, and the transition from what could be a pair of glowing owl eyes in the darkness in 1922 to a pair of train headlights approaching in the present day is one of the best match cuts I’ve seen in a comic in a while.  Perhaps my favorite angle used in a panel comes on page 9, where we get a POV shot of Bruce and Alfred talking in the Batcave from behind Batman’s mask, which has been left sitting on Bruce’s worktable.  We see the pair through the narrow slits of the eye-holes, adding an off-kilter, sinister dimension to the talking heads scene.

These were the standout artistic flourishes on first reading.  But upon repeat reading, it became apparent that there is a real visual motif of watching and observation going on here, and once you become aware of it, it’s everywhere.  There are a couple of instances when people are talking about the Court of Owls, where the angle shifts to an overhead shot that feels eerily like a POV shot from an unseen observer.  And there is a big focus on eyes.  Not just the aformentioned owl eyes, but lots of close-ups on human eyes, and things and people reflected in those eyes.  And once you’ve got eyes in your head, eye-like circles start popping up everywhere!  The shot from the blackness below, looking up through the open manhole cover, the railway tunnel at the bottom of page 4 with the far end looking like a little pupil, the circle honed in on Luka Volk when Batman is using lie detector technology on him, the insignia on the Talon’s blade, Batman silhouetted against the full moon on page 13,  the device Batman uses to cut a hole in the floor on page 14, the giant owl insignia we see looming behind Batman or over his head in the scenes that follow.  It all reminds us of the Talon and his circular, owl-like goggles.  And it enhances this pervasive sense that the Court of Owls are everywhere, always watching.  This is a perfect example of art and writing going hand-in-hand and creating an immersive experience for the reader.

It would be negligent of me to not also continue praising the work being done by inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO.  As I’ve mentioned before, Glapion’s heavy blacks are a major part of this title’s overall aesthetic, and that applies in this issue more than ever.  His sharp lines also serve as the perfect compliment to Capullo’s distinctive style.  Similarly, FCO’s muted color palette – making precise use of earthy browns/oranges and cool blues – gives Batman its own unique feel that sets it apart even from the other Bat-titles.  The whole creative team come together to ensure this is just a great-looking book.

It’s getting hard to review this title on a monthly basis, without just repeating the “it’s great!” hyperbole.  My conclusion for this issue is the same as it was for the last one, and I imagine next month I’ll be saying the same thing: Batman #3 is the best issue yet, building on what came before and steadily ratcheting up the tension.  It’s so rewarding when a comic doesn’t just coast on the power of the title character’s brand name.  The writing is striving to provide fresh insight into Batman’s character, while the art is innovative and charged with a desire to explore new and exciting possibilities the comic medium makes available.  This is comics done right.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #3

Anyone who follows my reviews/talks to me for more than five minutes will know that I absolutely love Swamp Thing, and that I’d mark it out as the single best title of DC’s relaunch.  Issues #1 and #2 were 10/10 comics, and the best new releases of their respective months.  After issue #1 set the stage and provided a startling debut that was laced with menace, issue #2 took things to another level with a dense narrative that added a whole new layer of complexity to the Swamp Thing mythos.  The standard has been set dizzyingly high, and with that my expectations.  Would Swamp Thing #3 continue the escalation, and would the series somehow manage to top itself again?

The way it works out, the narrative here is a little more subdued.  After the revelations came thick and fast in the previous chapter, here we don’t actually spend that much panel time with Alec Holland and Abigail Arcane, now reinvented as star-crossed lovers destined to be enemies.  I’ll admit, with the cover to this issue (and the thematically loaded image of Abby blasting Swamp Thing’s heart out of his chest) I was expecting an in-depth exploration of the pair’s storied history – in my opinion one of the all-time great romances of comics – with Scott Snyder once again skewing it and presenting it in a whole new light, in turn adding more depth and scope to another aspect of the mythos.  And we do get a bit of that here, but at this stage it’s mostly through allusion and foreshadowing of further revelations down the line.  I do like the tougher, battle-worn Abigail we get here, though.  If the Abby we knew in the earlier stories was Sarah Connor in The Terminator, this is her in her badass Terminator 2: Judgement Day phase.

Alec Holland himself has a couple of interesting beats, as he learns a couple of surprising things about himself.  But while I commended Swamp Thing #2 for keeping us so enthralled that we didn’t feel antsy about getting to Alec’s inevitable return to the role of Swamp Thing, three issues in I’m starting to feel that way now.  When the title character of your comic only appears on the front cover and in a one-panel flashback, the desire to get things moving starts to niggle at the back of your mind.

With the Abby/Alec relationship is placed on the backburner in this issue, what becomes the central focus of this chapter is the story of William, a boy with an extreme aversion to chlorophyll who must spend his life locked in a protective bubble.  Through him, we discover that just as Alec Holland has been chosen as the champion of The Green, The Black (also known as The Rot, or The Other) is also seeking a champion, someone with the same connection to the forces of death and decay that Holland has to life and growth.  The way William shifts from victim to terrifying threat is gruesome to behold, but also darkly compelling.

I love how Swamp Thing is currently complimenting Animal Man, where each title works as a story in its own, but if you’re reading both at once you get a tangible sense that this is the same war being fought on two fronts.  People seem to be tired of events and crossovers, but this is an example of crossover done well, when it legitimately feels like a story too big for a single book to contain.  It also helps that it’s the two best comics in DC’s lineup that are the sister titles.

A big part of the success of the first two issues was the incredible, boundary-pushing artwork of Yanick Paquette.  Such was his massive contribution to the unique atmosphere of Swamp Thing that I was initially concerned upon seeing a co-artist solicited for the issue.  I’ve seen enough examples of fill-in artists helping with pages leading to a comic that feels more like a patchwork than a coherent narrative to be wary.  Thankfully, this is not the case with Victor Ibanez.  The art style is so consistent throughout that, especially with Ibanez’s name being absent from the cover, I initially thought that Paquette had drawn the whole issue after all.  Ibanez works hard to draw in a style highly reminiscent of Paquette’s figure work, and the slick colors of Nathan Fairbairn do a great job in making the transition between artists feel largely seamless.

The one area where Ibanez doesn’t quite match Paquette is in his layouts.  Ibanez is a very talented artist, and if he’d been drawing Swamp Thing since issue #1, I’m sure it would still be getting praised as a very good-looking comic book.  But while Paquette certainly brings good-looking work to the table, what has really set his work on Swamp Thing so apart from the crowd is the innovation on display, the mind-blowing construction of panels into immersive, envelope-pushing montages that evoke the landmark work of Steve Bissette.  And as such, it’s the handful of pages Paquette does here that really stand out.  Just take a look at this image:

In the context of the narrative, the image is pretty abstract, its significance not yet clear.  But it’s haunting, and beautiful, and so jarring in its stillness – amidst a comic that up until this point has been dialogue-heavy and kinetic and flowing in its imagery – that it can’t help but make a powerful impression.

Paquette also excels in a double-page spread touching on the troubled history of Abigail and the Arcane family.  The central focal point recalls an image that will pack particular punch with those familiar with Moore’s run, and I got a kick seeing Paquette’s take on the infamous Anton Arcane.  The visual cameo of the Patchwork Man was also a real blast from the past.  Speaking of references to Swamp Thing history, did anyone spot that William’s doctor was called Dr. Durock, after Dick Durock, the actor who played Swamp Thing in the films and the short-lived TV series?

If Swamp Thing #3 might has lost a step from the first two issues, it’s only a step.  This is still superior comics storytelling, steadily setting the stage for an epic drama.  Once again, Swamp Thing and Animal Man are the best comics of their week, and stand proudly as the crown jewels of DC’s New 52.

REVIEW: Animal Man #2

Last month, Animal Man #1 was one of the surprise hits of the New 52.  Amidst some other high-profile titles released on the same week, I had somewhat overlooked it going in, only for it to emerge as one of my favorites.  And many others agreed, with Animal Man #1 becoming one of the biggest critical darlings of DC’s September relaunch, and in turn becoming a sell-out smash hit.  Now, Animal Man #2 isn’t taking anyone by surprise.  It arrives with the weight of expectation following the stellar debut issue.  A lot of people are expecting the second issue to deliver on the promise of the first.  Thankfully, Animal Man #2 not only lives up to the first issue, it surpasses it!

Writer Jeff Lemire carefully crafted the narrative of Animal Man #1 to make it an exercise in steady transition.  We began with conventional superheroics, but as the issue unfolded, things for progressively stranger, and by the climax Lemire was dipping his toes into the murky waters of Lynchian dream horror.  This issue, however, we dive headlong into this realm of dark psychadelia, and the comic is all the better for it.  There are bleeding meat trees, hippos giving birth to massive, cancerous growths (as someone who’s been to see the hippos at San Diego Zoo, this particular beat was all the more creepy for me), and people’s hands being transformed into chicken feet.  This is a weird comic, brimming with ghoulish invention.

But amidst all this weirdness, Lemire gives us an anchor that keeps the story relatable, and more about heart and emotion than just big ideas.  That anchor comes in the form of the characterisation of Buddy Baker and his family.  As was the case last issue, the family dynamic is the best thing about the comic, but while last time we got to see a regular family meeting around the kitchen table, here we see the Bakers in crisis mode.  Faced with the shocking revelation of Maxine’s newfound powers, how each character reacts helps to further establish their distinct personalities.

Buddy remains a relatable, highly likeable protagonist, and here we see him much more as a family man than as a superhero.  His actions here are driven by a need to protect his family.  We see these protective instincts manifest themselves in his response to an obnoxious neighbour laying his hands on Cliff, and it’s what pushes him to instantly roll with the crazy things happening to him and fly off with Maxine to find the central hub of The Red.  He doesn’t understand the scope of the threat against the world, or even the full extent of his connection to what he calls “the life web”: all that matters to him is ensuring his loved ones are safe.  Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was one of the great Everyman heroes, and Jeff Lemire has really captured that aspect of the character.

His wife Ellen, however, is just as heroic in her own  way.  She doesn’t like it when Buddy’s other life interrupts his home life, and she has long feared that Maxine would be drawn into her father’s world.  “I didn’t sign up for this… craziness when I married you,” she says at one point in the issue.  But while the easy, stereotypical bit of manufactured conflict to enact in this situation is to have the wife threaten to leave the hero (“It’s me or the job!”), Lemire thankfully doesn’t go that route.  As angry as she is, she still supports her husband, because she knows he’s right.  And she doesn’t show her fears to her children: with the way she packs a backpack for Maxine and wraps her up warmly, saying, “Bye, sweetie… be careful!” as she flies off with her dad, you’d think she was sending her daughter off on a school trip rather than a potentially life-threatening mission.  With the controversy DC has attracted for some of its depictions of women with some of its #1s, Ellen Baker is a good example of a well-developed, nuanced female character who keeps her clothes on.

Ostensibly, son Cliff is the comic relief.  When confronted with the nightmarish happenings that open the issue, his first response is to run and grab his phone to film it, while shouting, “This is so badass!”  But more subtly, Lemire gives us hints that there may be more serious development waiting for Cliff down the line.  While Buddy and Maxine go off to find The Red, Cliff is forced to stay behind with Ellen, with Maxine reminding him that this is because he doesn’t have any powers like her and their dad.  This could be the beginnings of a rift between father and son, so this should be one plot strand it will be interesting to see develop.

Possibly stealing the show this time round is Maxine, Buddy’s young daughter.  After the shock revelation that ended last issue, we see more of the disturbing powers she is manifesting, and get the sense that she could be more powerful – and dangerous – than her father.  The best thing about the fondness she shows for her new collection of “pets” or the matter-of-fact way she explains the terrifying knowledge that seems to have popped into her brain (note how seamlessly she seems to have turned into the Maxine from Buddy’s dream last issue) is her childish innocence.  It makes the dark nature of what she knows and what she can do all the more jarring.

While praise for Jeff Lemire’s writing on Animal Man #1 has been pretty much universal, the reception to Travel Foreman’s stylised art has been a lot more mixed.  I said in my review for the first issue that the style wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and sure enough, a lot of people have said it’s too rough and odd-looking, that they’d like the book more if someone else was drawing.  I utterly disagree.  I was very much in the pro-Foreman camp with the first issue, and in the second issue Foreman makes such an impression that I already don’t see how anyone else could draw the title.  I mean, just look at the cover,  that beautiful, horrific cover.  Insane images like that are what make Foreman a perfect fit for this gig.

As I said before, the fact that the characters look so unusual and the setting are quite sparse works in the comic’s favor.  This doesn’t look like any of the straightforward superhero titles in DC’s lineup.  This has its own distinct visual branding, Foreman’s style marking it out as its own entity.  His light linework give even the “normal” scenes at the Baker household a haunting, ethereal quality, and when we delve into The Red, Foreman really gets to cut loose.  In a one-page montage depicting Buddy and Maxine’s journey to find the old tree, Foreman’s layout takes a turn for the abstract, as he depicts the pair walking through a metaphorical network of red veins like the “map” tattooed on Animal Man’s chest.  And the presentation of villains the Hunters Three at the end is wonderfully disturbing, with Foreman very quickly portraying people who look like Something That Shouldn’t Be There is lurking underneath their skin.

But the standout image of  the whole comic comes when Buddy and Maxine enter The Red.  In a lavish, trippy double-page spread, we see the pair spiralling around, Buddy’s body gruesomely warping, as the pair find themselves in a bizarre world with rivers of blood and sculpture-like mountains of bones and animal flesh.  The image is a stunner, and one I find myself still going back to just to stare at.

For the second month running, Swamp Thing and Animal Man stand head and shoulders above a strong offering of new DC titles on the week of their release.  In fact, when I got to my local comic shop on Wednesday afternoon, I picked up one of the last two remaining copies of Animal Man on the shelf, and had to get the display copy of Swamp Thing: if anything proves to me that DC’s relaunch has thus far been a success, it’s that quality titles such as Swamp Thing and Animal Man that are selling out.  If I got nothing else from the New 52, these two sister titles would have made the whole relaunch worthwhile.  In terms of Animal Man #2 in particular, the pacing of this comic is relentless, with narrative and visuals coming together to create an utterly immersive experience for the reader.  Both Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman are on top form, and Animal Man has already established itself as one of the very best titles available on the shelf from any publisher.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #2

I used quite a bit of hyperbole in my praise for Swamp Thing #1 last month.  I called it the best of DC’s New 52, I said it was the best issue #1 of any comic I’d read in quite some time.  I’ve now reread that first issue several times, and it holds up under repeat scrutiny as a perfectly-orchestrated return to the world of Swamp Thing, and a triumph for the whole creative team.  The difficulty with such hyperbole, however, is that there’s nowhere else to go from there.  Which is quite problematic in the case of Swamp Thing #2, since it’s even better than Swamp Thing #1.

One complaint I’ve seen other reviewers level towards the first issue of the series is that, for new readers, there wasn’t enough about the history of Alec Holland and Swamp Thing.  This wasn’t an issue for me, given my love for Alan Moore’s run, but anyone who did have such a problem will surely be left satisfied if they returned for this second instalment.  The first half of the book immerses us in the mythology of Swamp Thing and how Alec Holland fits into it all.  For new readers, this introduces concepts such as The Green and the Parliament of Trees, and gets the plot moving along by further establishing the monstrous creature that rose in the desert last issue.  This being now has a name – Sethe – and a backstory of its own, linked to that of the Swamp Thing.  I think, as an introduction to Swamp Thing, this issue does a great job.

But while this is accessible to new readers, it’s a real treat for old readers.  Scott Snyder is not just reintroducing Swamp Thing: he’s reinventing him.  Carefully threaded through this sequence is a revelation that nothing is quite as we thought it was, and he adds a wrinkle in the mythology that adds a whole new dimension to the character.  This is, in a lot of ways, like “The Anatomy Lesson”, arguably the most famous issue of The Saga of the Swamp Thing that Moore and Bissette gave us, and quite possibly my favorite single issue of any comic, ever.  Like “The Anatomy Lesson”, “When It Comes A’Knockin'” is the second issue of the run, with the previous issue following on from a status quo set up by someone else.  And like “The Anatomy Lesson”, this totally changes our perspective of what Swamp Thing is, but instead of doing it as a retcon, does it in a way that feels integral to what has come before, as if it’s rooted in a love for those earlier stories and the depths seemingly hidden within them all along, waiting to be dug up.

Snyder is certainly a fan of Swamp Thing.  That can be seen right from the opening page, a flashback to the life (and death) of the previous Swamp Thing before Alec Holland.  This is a character first alluded to all the way back in The Saga of the Swamp Thing #47, where Swamp Thing found a toy plane in the forest where the Parliament of Trees reside, and felt “an inexplicable sadness” upon touching it.  Here, we see how that toy plane found its way there, and the gaps in the story of the doomed pilot are filled in for us.  It’s like Alan Moore left these little nuggets of gold for later writers to uncover, as if this was the way the tapestry was always supposed to unfold.  Even the bad guys of that era could now be retroactively viewed as followers of Sethe: the nightmarish creature they invoked, the Invunche, is eerily similar to Sethe’s mangled servants in this issue.  It seems to me like Snyder is returning to the classic Len Wein characterisation of Swamp Thing, but is inserting that more human interpretation of the character into the a story containing the ambitious concepts and scope of Alan Moore’s work, mixing it all into something bigger and entirely his own.

But Swamp Thing #2 isn’t all talking heads and info dumps.  The second half of the issue gives way to a frenzied action sequence, culminating in the return of a favorite character from the mythos.  It would seem that next issue should provide another crucial piece of the puzzle of Swamp Thing lore for readers old and new alike.

But amidst Snyder’s careful pacing, some might be unhappy.  They might grumble that we’re now two issues in, and Alec Holland isn’t Swamp Thing yet.  By the looks of things, he might not even be Swamp Thing by the end of issue #3!  But that’s exactly the point.  Swamp Thing has cool powers, and is one of the most awesomely-designed characters in comics.  But Snyder wants our connection to him to be deeper than that.  He is setting this Swamp Thing, our Swamp Thing, apart from all those other Swamp Things through the ages.  And to do that, he is giving us reasons to care about Alec Holland, the man, before his inevitable transformation.  With each passing chapter, we are being immersed deeper in the mythology of Swamp Thing, and it’s at once familiar and inherently different because Holland – originally little more than a prologue player – is now immersed in it too.  We’re discovering this world anew with him.

In light of Action Comics #2, there is a lot of talk of Superman as Moses.  But if we’re looking for Biblical parallels, how about Alec Holland as Jonah?  He has a great responsibility, and he’s trying to run away from it, but no matter where he runs it’s going to claim him eventually.  The swtich in the comic’s central conceit from being a monster haunted by memories of a man he never was to a man haunted by memories of a monster he never was makes Holland a fascinatingly damaged character, one who says, “I’m not the hero you think I am.”  And that, to me, is an interesting twist.  The mantle of Swamp Thing was originally seen as a curse, but here Snyder presents it as an important responsibility, perhaps even a gift.  Swamp Thing is prophecised not to be an outsider or a monster, but to be a great hero and protector, and Alec’s reticence to return to that role is based largely on doubt about whether he can live up to that calling.

At this point, I’ve written over 1000 words, and I haven’t even talked about the incredible artwork of Yanick Paquette.  Every word of praise I uttered about the masterfully crafted page layouts when discussing last issue, I carry over to his work here, and then some.  The old Swamp Thing’s tale is presented to us amidst a network of vines.  And when Holland speaks of seeing these images through vines himself, we realise that Paquette is letting us see this narrative through Holland’s eyes, experiencing it as he experiences it.  Then, when we take a trip into The Green, the panel borders flourish into arrangements of flowers and greenery.  The highlight of the layouts, however, remains the sequences when the agents of The Other make their presence felt, with the panels seemingly breaking down and decaying before our eyes.  One page in particular stood out for me, where we see a fly buzzing along the border of the page, bringing the decay with it.  This instantly reminded me of Stephen Bissette’s stunning work in another classic Moore issue, “Love and Death”: another nod to the character’s history.

I want to take this moment to go on a brief tangent and praise the lettering of John J. Hill throughout this issue.  Paquette creates some visually-ambitious tableaus, some spreading across two pages, but we never lose sight of the order in which our eyes are meant to fall on each image.  Why is that?  Because through his speech bubbles and captions, Hill carefully lays out a trail that leads the eye unobtrusively from image to image.  This is an eample of how skilled lettering can really enhance the reading experience.

But back to Paquette.  It’s not just with the panel layouts that he excels.  The images within are incredible too.  Snyder gives Paquette some nightmarish stuff to draw here, and he brings it to life with pinache.  The Invluche (even if these poor folk aren’t necessarily Invulche, I’ll keep calling them that until told otherwise – it’s better than “twisty head people”) look suitably terrifying: the whited-out eyes make them look truly ghoulish, but the way the skin folds on their twisted necks makes you cringe, and in turn empathise with the fact that these mindless killers were once human.  I think the most unnerving bit of their appearance in this issue is that one of them talks.  To me, the thought that there’s just a little bit of the person they used to be left in there, rather than them simply being a mute zombie, is enough to give me the shudders.

If it wasn’t immediately obvious from the cover of the first issue, Paquette also renders a great Swamp Thing.  I love how he’s constantly changing from panel to panel, with branches growing and leaves falling off from his body.  Nathan Fairbairn helps here too, presenting a Swamp Thing who changes from summer green to autumn brown with the passage of time.  In general, Fairbairn’s rich, textured colors add much to the aesthetic of the book.

The solicits tell us that Yanick Paquette will be getting a partial assist from Victor Ibanez next month, with Ibanez taking over for the entirety of issue #4.  I have mixed feelings about this.  Paquette has made such an immediate impact on this title, to the point where I’m already having difficulty imagining what the comic is going to look like without him.  And I appreciate the sentiment that while short term delays suck, long term it would be a better investment to be able to release graphic novel collections with consistent, beautiful artwork from Paquette throughout.  But on the other hand, I’m selfishly thinking of the short term, and I don’t know if I could bear to wait more than a month for each new instalment of this saga.  And even back in the Moore days, Swamp Thing was a title that always had fill-in artists.  And while the downside was not having Bissette draw every issue, the upside was that artists like John Totleben and Rick Veitch – great in their own right – also got to leave their mark on the character.  All I’ll say is, Paquette’s going to be a hard act to top, and regardless of any requirement for fill-ins, I hope he keeps on returning to the title as primary artist for a good while yet.

It’s still early days, and the story is just starting to come together, but I already think that both Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette could be shaping up to give us the finest work of their careers thus far with this Swamp Thing saga.  Issue #1 was a brilliantly-constructed introduction, and issue #2 is a masterclass in escalation and building upon the groundwork laid.  Right now, along the top shelf of my bookcase, I have a hardcover DC Comics Library edition of The Roots of the Swamp Thing, collecting the original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson run, and next to it I have volumes 1-5 of Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing.  If this story keeps up the quality, I already yearn for a hardcover edition I can place next to those all-time classics.

DC New 52 September: The Final Verdict

Over the course of this month, I’ve read 24 of DC’s New 52 – the wave of #1s released throughout September as part of the publisher’s linewide relaunch – and reviewed each of them for this blog.  Back in August, I posted up on a forum the 20 titles I was intending to buy, ordering them based on my level of anticipation.  Here was what that list looked like:

  1. BATMAN
  2. ACTION COMICS
  3. SWAMP THING
  4. STORMWATCH
  5. JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK
  6. DEMON KNIGHTS
  7. WONDER WOMAN
  8. JUSTICE LEAGUE
  9. BATWOMAN
  10. ANIMAL MAN
  11. FRANKENSTEIN: AGENT OF S.H.A.D.E.
  12. AQUAMAN
  13. BATGIRL
  14. DC UNIVERSE PRESENTS
  15. GREEN LANTERN
  16. THE FLASH
  17. I, VAMPIRE
  18. CATWOMAN
  19. THE FURY OF FIRESTORM: THE NUCLEAR MEN
  20. RESURRECTION MAN

I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at this list I made, based on the New 52 titles I was most looking forward to, and see how it compares to my rankings of the comics now that I’ve read them. I ended up bumping my reading list from 20 to 24, so I’ll now present my top 24:

24. RED LANTERNS
Of all the books I picked up, this one was the weakest. A neat intro with Dex-Starr, but nothing remotely memorable aside from that.
FULL REVIEW HERE

23. NIGHTWING
Decent writing and art, but a lot of this feels like a pale rehash of Snyder’s Detective Comics work with Dick Grayson. Not enough to bring me back for more.
FULL REVIEW HERE

22. CATWOMAN
A pretty good debut issue, with some stylish (if cheesecakey) art, marred by an already-notorious stinker of a closing scene.
FULL REVIEW HERE

21. THE FURY OF FIRESTORM: THE NUCLEAR MEN
Even a great creative team can’t make me care about Firestorm.
FULL REVIEW HERE

20. DETECTIVE COMICS
Was better than I was expecting, thanks largely to Tony Daniel’s lavish artwork and a killer ending. But the story as a whole feels pretty pedestrian.
FULL REVIEW HERE

19. RESURRECTION MAN
A highly competent introductory issue, with solid writing and art, but amidst such hefty competition, I don’t know if it has enough to draw me back for another issue.
FULL REVIEW HERE

18. DC UNIVERSE PRESENTS
I like Deadman, and this offers some nice insight into his character. But the plot is really going to need to kick in next issue to keep me interested.
FULL REVIEW HERE

17. JUSTICE LEAGUE
Doesn’t quite live up to all the weight of expectation, and it suffers from decompression, but on its own merits this is a fun, good-looking comic.
FULL REVIEW HERE

16. STORMWATCH
Certainly not the worst New 52 comic, but based on its ranking VS how hyped I was for it, perhaps my biggest disappointment of the bunch. Some interesting concepts keep me interested for now, though.
FULL REVIEW HERE

15. ALL STAR WESTERN
The Jonah Hex writing team reunite and maintain that consistently great quality, this time tackling a different kind of story. The most successful of the last-minute additions to my pull list.
FULL REVIEW HERE

14. THE FLASH
Francis Manapul’s art is stunning, and the writing is fine so long as you accept it on its own merits as a blank slate and a fresh start.
FULL REVIEW HERE

13. BATWOMAN
Light on plot, but when a comic has this much gorgeous J.H. WIlliams III art in it, who needs plot?
FULL REVIEW HERE

12. WONDER WOMAN
I’m not quite sure I know what was going on for all of this issue, but whatever was happening, it seemed intrigiung.
FULL REVIEW HERE

11. GREEN LANTERN
Just when I thought I was out, Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke pull me back in. I said I’d be using this issue to judge whether or not I’d be dropping the title, but this relaunch won me back.
FULL REVIEW HERE

10. FRANKENSTEIN: AGENT OF S.H.A.D.E.
I still have issues with the art, but the dizzying level of nutty invention in Jeff Lemire’s writing more than made up for it.
FULL REVIEW HERE

9. ACTION COMICS
Morrison didn’t blow me away quite so much as he usually does, but this was still a whole lot of fun, and I’m keen to see where his altered take on Superman’s early days takes us next.
FULL REVIEW HERE

8. BATGIRL
I was expecting to like Batwoman more, but this ended up winning me over with a likeable portrayal of Barbara Gordon. I should have known that Gail Simone would deliver the goods.
FULL REVIEW HERE

7. JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK
This chapter was mostly set-up, but it’s fascinating setup, with arguably the best ensemble cast of the New 52 being carefully brought together by Peter Milligan, while Mikel Janin provides atmospheric art.
FULL REVIEW HERE

6. I, VAMPIRE
Based on my original interest VS its final ranking, this surely stands as my biggest sleeper hit of the bunch. Joshua Hale Fialkov manages to tell a non-boring vampire story, while Andrea Sorrentino brings it to life with breathtaking visuals.
FULL REVIEW HERE

5. AQUAMAN
Another book that was much better than I was anticipating. The dream team of Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis delivered the goods once more, making Aquaman cool again.
FULL REVIEW HERE

4. BATMAN
This was my most anticipated book. In the end, it didn’t quite reach the top of my list of best #1s after reading, but it was still a quality book, with Scott Snyder putting together the first chapter of what should be an engrossing mystery. And thanks to Greg Capullo it all looks slick as hell.
FULL REVIEW HERE

3. ANIMAL MAN
Animal Man better than Batman!? Jeff Lemire is one of the big winners of the New 52 in my book, with both his titles ranking higher in this list than my original hype-list, much higher in the case of this comic. Along with some unusual but memorable art from Travel Foreman, this acts as a fitting re-introduction to Buddy Baker and his family, with plenty for fans of superheroes and horror alike.
FULL REVIEW HERE

2. DEMON KNIGHTS
Paul Cornell knocks this one out of the park, with a masterfully constructed debut issue that – thanks to the lush pencils of Diogenes Neves – looks amazing, too.
FULL REVIEW HERE

1. SWAMP THING
The best of a great bunch. Scott Snyder gives us a debut that doesn’t falter under the mgihty shadow cast by Alan Moore, while Yanick Paquette kills it with some breathtaking artistic innovation. More than any other of the New 52, this is the one I can’t wait to get issue #2 for.
FULL REVIEW HERE

So, some clear winners and losers out of that selection. But even with the ever-expanding list of titles I picked up, there were very few that I outright regretted buying.

The big question is, what titles get bumped from single issue purchases to monthly commitments?  The way I’m currently looking at it, 21-24 are definitely chopped from my buy list.  19 and 20 are borderline cases, with my currently leaning towards not picking up issue #2, but maybe being inclined to give them a go for one more issue depending on how they look on the shelf.  16-18 are definitely getting picked up for #2, but if the quality doesn’t pick up I may not be back for #3.  11-15 are safe for their first arc, after which point I will re-assess any longer term commitment.  With the top 10 I’m in for the long haul, barring any drastic slump in quality.

So, for now, that’s DC got me onboard for 18-20 of their relaunched titles, with more titles launching in October that have also caught my interest.  So, overall, from my limited perspective, I’d say DC’s relaunch has been a big success.

REVIEW: All Star Western #1

Over the past three weeks, amongst making my planned DC New 52 pickups, I’ve also, on a whim, grabbed another last-minute addition that I’d had no intention of buying up until the 11th hour.  These were, respectively, Detective Comics, Red Lanterns and Nightwing.  In each case, I didn’t really feel vindicated for my spontaneity, as in each case my wild card selection was the weakest offering of the week, with me unlikely to come back for issue #2 of any of them.  So, when I was in the store this week, and – with no prior planning – grabbed All Star Western #1 off the shelf and added it to my buy pile, in the back of my mind I had a worry that I would be going 0 for 4 on such decisions.  Thankly, in the case of All Star Western #1, this concern was unfounded.

For a long time, I bought DC’s  Jonah Hex series – also by co-writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti – faithfully each month.  Shoved in a box somewhere, I have the first 50-odd issues of that series in my overgrown and wild comic collection.  But when I was trying to curtail my buying habits and thin down my list of monthly purchases, arguably the biggest strength of Jonah Hex – the largely one-and-done structure of standalone tales each month – became one of the things that made it an easy choice to cut.  And though I came back for the final two issues of that series, that to me felt like my goodbye to the character.  I had no inclination to return to that world with All Star Western in the relaunch.

But reading All Star Western #1, it’s clear that with a new title comes a different approach to storytelling.  The simple, standalone tales have given way to what seems to be a dense, intricate murder mystery, the first chapter in a multi-part saga that very quickly drew me in.  While I still think that Hex is a character best suited to those one-and-done fables, I can’t deny that Gray and Palmiotti make a skillful transition to a longer-form narrative for the scarred bounty hunter.  Aiding in that transition is the shift in locales from the wilderness of the Old West to the burgeoning city of Gotham, where Jonah Hex partners with Amadeus Arkham to discover who has been killing and mutilating prostitutes in a case that bears parallels to Jack the Ripper.  This change of scenery has a twofold effect.  First, it alters the dynamics of the story, so in spite of the title this feels less like a classic Western than it does like a Victorian murder mystery.  Second, it gives us a Jonah Hex story that feels more connected to the current DCU rather than existing in its own distinct historical corner: we even get some references to the ideas and even the characters Scott Snyder has been playing with in his Gotham-based writing.

In terms of characterisation, by this stage Gray and Palmiotti could write a compelling Jonah Hex in their sleep.  But, in introducing Hex to a potential new wave of readers here, they take an interesting angle of presenting him from the clinical perspective of an outside observer: in this case, Dr. Arkham.  His evolving insights into Hex’s personality and motivations help to show new readers that there is more to this apparently amoral bounty hunter than meets the eye, while those more familiar with the character will get a kick of seeing how certain comments by Arkham accurately (or inaccurately) allude to Hex’s storied history.

Over the course of their Jonah Hex run, Gray and Palmiotti were fortunate enough to work with a wide range of talented artistic collaborators, and Moritat carries on that fine tradition.  Aided by the muted color palette of Gabriel Bautista, Moritat evocativelly brings 19th Century Gotham to life, right from a breathtaking opening splash page of Gotham train station and the emerging city behind it.  He also provides us with a fine rendition of Jonah Hex, capturing the fine balance between ugly and heroic.  If I had any small complaint to make about Moritat’s work, it would perhaps be that his ink lines are a bit too thick and heavy at points, to the point where it can get distracting.

Another thing worth mentioning is the length of this comic.  This has a bumped-up price tag compared to other DC comics, and my understanding was that this would allow a regular-length main feature, plus a shorter backup.  There is no backup feature here, just the main Jonah Hex/Amadeus Arkham story.  This means we get a whole 28 pages devoted to this opening chapter, letting the creative team go more in-depth with establishing this world and its characters than a lot of comics got the chance to do in their debuts.  You really feel like you’ve got your money’s worth after reading All Star Western #1, a full, dense chapter of storytelling.

So, when it comes to my wild-card selections from DC’s relaunch lineup this month, it seems I’m now 1-3.  I don’t yet know if I’m ready to make another long-term commitment to DC’s weird western world, but for the duration of this storyline at least, ALl Star Western has grabbed my interest, and reminded me why I had such fondness for Jonah Hex in the first place.

 

REVIEW – The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1

Of all the comics in the New 52, there has been none that has jumped on and off and on and off and on and off and on my buy list more than The Fury of Firestorm.  The key conflict at the core of this indecision was between my excitement over the excellent creative team – Gail Simone’s one of the most dependably great writers in comics, Ethan Van Sciver is known as a top-notch idea man, and his work on Nothingface with Kel Nuttall made me a fan of Yildiray Cinar – and the fact that I just don’t give a crap about Firestorm.  Right up to the point where I picked up this first issue off the shelf, I was unsure whether or not the former could overcome the latter.  In the end, however, I don’t think it could.

Gail Simone is a writer I always enjoy.  But even she couldn’t get me to care about Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch.  While I appreciate in theory the conflict between the two that her and co-plotter Van Sciver were trying to set up, in execution each one just came across as unreasonable in their dislike of the other, Jason moreso than Ronnie.  And as a result, neither character was really able to win our sympathies as human beings before they got turned into Firestorms.  Furthermore, as someone who has never given the Firestorm mythos so much as a sideways glance, I don’t think this issue did much to introduce the concept of the characters or the nature of their powers to me.  Maybe the idea is to set up a mystery that will be explained over the course of the story, though, so I’ll be a bit lenient on that front.

Where Gail seems much more comfortable is in the depiction of the villains hunting for prospective Firestorms.  I’ve mentioned before that Gail Simone excels at quickly establishing truly loathsome, despicable villains, and that trend continues here with some shady government types taking a “by any means necessary” approach to tracking down the Firestorm Protocols, ruthlessly killing all they come into contact with.  The most horrible thing about it is how impersonal the acts of murder and torture are to them, as the agents joke around with each other and make small talk about stuff outside of work while engaging in acts of brutality.  It’s little touches like this where Gail gets to impose more of her own distinctive voice onto the work.

Once again, Yildiray Cinar’s pencils are great,  Crisp, clean, complimented by the lush, textured colors of Flash colorist Brian Buccellato, the best compliment I can give to the visuals of the comic is that the interiors aren’t a disappointment upon following a typically stylish Ethan Van Sciver cover.

As for Van Sciver’s injection of ideas, you do get a sense of a great twist on the Firestorm concept here, and it’s the most interesting part of the issue.  But it doesn’t happen until the last page, by which point it may be too late to make an impact for this first issue.

So, after reading The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1, I’m much in the same position as I was before.  My admiration for Gail Simone, Ethan Van Sciver, Yildiray Cinar, and Brian Buccellatto too (I didn’t even know it was him working on the book until I checked the credits for this review, he displayed some real diversity from his trademark style on The Flash) remains as strong as ever, and each showcased their stuff effectively in this comic.  But at the end of it all, I still just don’t give a crap about Firestorm.  The creative team didn’t really do anything wrong.  Maybe the character just isn’t for me.

REVIEW: I, Vampire #1

And to think, at first I wasn’t even going to get I, Vampire.  Amidst all the DC Dark titles unveiled as part of the DC Relaunch back in June, I, Vampire stood out as one comic I definitely had zero interest in getting.  I didn’t like the cover, and the concept suggested in the solicit for the first issue just didn’t appeal to me at all.  It seemed like another soppy vampire romance to appeal to the Twilight crowd, and I figured that so long as the excellent American Vampire was going strong, surely any other vampire comic would be utterly redundant.  I know I’m not the only person who reacted that way at the time, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who still think that now, and as a result have decided not to pick up I, Vampire #1.  That would be a terrible mistake.

Based on some stunning preview art from the book released a little while back, and the generally high standard of the other titles released under the Dark banner thus far, I decided I’d give I, Vampire a go, at least for an issue.  It wasn’t a series I was particularly anticipating, with Justice League Dark being a title I was much more excited for amongst this week’s offerings.  But, though Justice League Dark was also great, I was shocked to discover that I, Vampire trumped it.  In fact, based on the disparity between where this title ranked on my personal hype list and its final standing among how I’d rank all the #1s I picked up this month after reading them, I, Vampire #1 might stand as my biggest sleeper hit of the New 52.

I had zero awareness of the previous incarnation of I, Vampire under the House of Mystery banner, as written by J.M. DeMatteis back in the 80s.  As far as I was concerned, this was not a relaunch, but the launch of a brand new series, introducing new characters and mythology into the DCU.  And, for someone coming into the comic with that perspective, I, Vampire #1 works very well.  We are efficiently introduced to our two key players.  Andrew Bennett, our hero, is a very old and powerful vampire who has retained his humanity, and so has devoted his eternal life to slaying his own kind.  Mary Seward, our villain, is Andrew’s great love, and also his greatest enemy and weakness, a vampire who shares much of his power but none of his love for humanity.  At this early stage in the narrative, we only get hints of their relationship and their shared history, but it’s a testament to the immense skill of writer Joshua Hale Fialkov that these both feel like rounded, real characters with their own nuanced personalities even without us having to immediately get exhaustive biographies explaining in detail exactly who they are.

Instead of starting with an origin story or exposition, Fialkov throws us right into the thick of things, juxtaposing the horror and piled corpses of the morning after with the battle of wills and sexual chess games of the night before.  Both prove equally engrossing.  The former shows Andrew’s power, but also the compassion and humanity that Mary intends to cruelly exploit, while the latter shows Catwoman #1 how to portray intense sexual chemistry between two adversaries without it feeling overblown and tacky.  I’m currently reading Tumor, an earlier work by Fialkov, and that too plays with chronology, jumping back and forth.  But while in Tumor there is an in-built, character-driven justification for these time shifts, here it feels largely like a stylistic choice, and while the unusual structure does make for a slick narrative, it did create the odd moment of confusion about what was going on, or when it was going on.

As I touched on above, one of the big questions for me going in is what a new vampire comic would do to stand apart from American Vampire.  And the niche that I, Vampire finds is that this isn’t a Vertigo title: it’s a vampire mythology entrenched in the DCU.  Though none of the famous superheroes actually show up here, they are mentioned, and how a vampire mythology might match up against them creates an interesting dynamic.  Andrew fears vampires declaring war on humanity because it might result in the superhumans wiping them out.  This is a world where vampires aren’t the heaviest hitters, so the question becomes, “How can they still pose a threat?”  The answer Fialkov comes up with to present vampires as terrorists: waging war on a human race they view as their oppressors, with Mary as their fanatic leader fighting for vampire supremacy.

Another thing I think Fialkov handles very well is the depiction of the vampires and their power sets.  Ironically enough, he is able to make Andrew, Mary and the rest feel different from a lot of the other vampires permeating pop culture nowadays by going back to the classic Bram Stoker breed: they can survive in sunlight, but are stronger at night, they can shapeshift into not just bats, but wolves and other creatures, and to kill them you have to not only put a stake through their heart, but also decapitate them. With how oversaturated vampires have become in all forms of pop culture these days, it’s hard for vampires to capture an enigmatic allure or a sense of menace anymore, but I, Vampire just about pulls it off.

I have a lot of admiration for the work Fialkov did in this issue, and it makes me keen to not just read the rest of Tumor, but pick up Echoes as well.  But I have to say, the true star of this comic is artist Andrea Sorrentino.  I mentioned earlier that I disliked the cover to this first issue when I first saw it, and I still don’t love it.  The Barbie doll figures with their pretty, pouting faces calls up that Twilight imagery that Fialkov’s storytelling inside does so much to dispel.  Also, as an interesting aside, it’s funny how I, Vampire managed to put a naked woman on its front cover (I don’t think tattoos count as clothing) without getting any of the sexism bad press other DC releases of recent weeks have got.  I think this demonstrates that the criticisms aren’t about readers being prudes, as some have suggested, but rather that sexuality and even scantily clad women is fine, but it’s the cheesecake fan-service depiction of it that’s tiresome.

But moving past the cover, the interior art is on a whole other level.  I described the preview pages released a while back as “stunning”, and “stunning” is the word that keeps on coming back to me whenever I try to describe the moody visuals crafted by Sorrentino.  Reminiscent of the work of Jae Lee or Tim Broadstreet, Sorrentino’s grounded, lifelike depictions of characters makes the monstrosities they turn into all the more creepy.  It’s also useful that he is his own inker, with the shadows around Andrew’s eyes seeming to become a seamless aspect of his base design, and some skillful use of full and partial silhouette at various key points in the comic.

Sorrentino is ably complimented by the colors of Marcelo Maiolo.  As mentioned above, this issue is very much a story of two halves: day and night.  And, appropriate for a tale where a vampire is the protagonist, the cool blue tone gives the night sequences a soothing, serene quality, while the stark orange glow of Maiolo’s sunlight makes the day feel harsh and threatening.  Elsewhere, Maiolo operates with a faded, washed-out pallette that brings out the deep blacks of Sorrentino’s inks, and together they manage to create one of the most intensely atmospheric comics of the New 52.

I also want to point out some cool work done by letterer Pat Brosseau, seeing that letterers don’t often get as much love as they should.  Notice how, in the space of a single issue, Brosseau establishes four different kinds of vampire voices through his fonts and bubbles?  In regular human form, the vampires speak in normal word balloons.  When Mary takes her glowing red “Queen of Blood” form, her dialogue boldens.  When a vampire is stakes, the font within the white balloon grows larger, turning red.  And when a vampire shapeshifts, their dialogue as a creature is spoken in a red balloon with white font.  Little touches like this further enhance the shifting identity of the vampires, so kudos to Brosseau too.

So, in closing, let’s cast aside the myths and the bad press.  No, this is not soppy, angsty teen love piffle like Twilight.  Yes, there is room for another vampire comic, even after American Vampire.  The Dark stable of comics have been among the biggest winners of the New 52, and I, Vampire is the perfect closing note to that trend.  I was initially hesitant about picking up issue #1, but there’ll be no such doubt about coming back for issue #2.