Is 2014 Comics’ Summer of Horror?

EmilyInterviewTeaserOver the past couple of months, it feels like I have been immersed in horror. Over the course of this month in particular, it’s starting to seem like my every spare moment has been dedicated to talking up my horror comic series, And Then Emily Was Gone. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid my social media PR onslaught, here’s the series synopsis:

Greg Hellinger is a man who sees monsters. Driven to the brink of madness by monstrous apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening…

Equal parts Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Wicker Man, with an atmospheric rural Scottish setting, And Then Emily Was Gone is a comic I’m really proud to have written, and artist Iain Laurie, colorist Megan Wilson and letterer Colin Bell have all done stellar work. The five-issue miniseries will be released monthly by ComixTribe, with the first issue hitting comic shops in July. That means this is the month it’s in the Diamond Previews catalogue available for order, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the marketability for this weird little book. From the early stages, there was concern that there might not be an audience in the comic market for this kind of morbid, gruesome story, that this might sit as something of an oddity among the more bombastic, action-orientated fare available in Previews. But recently, it’s started to occur to me that something dark is afoot in the comics world. Horror comics are on the rise, and now And Then Emily Was Gone is feeling less like a strange curio and more like a small part of a big movement.

EMILY 0108Just look at the new releases on the shelf of your local comic shop this week. Wednesday 7th May marked the launch of two new horror titles: Nailbiter and The Woods. Nailbiter is an Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, about a small town in the American heartland that has been the birthplace of 16 prolific serial killers, and the disquieting secrets that town may hold. It was first announced at Image Expo in January, and did not seem like the most high-profile unveiling of that weekend. But over the past couple of months, I’ve watched buzz steadily built, first as people were floored by the blood-drenched preview art coming from Mike Henderson, then as the word-of-mouth started slipping out from those who’d read advance copies and were blown away. There was something palpable in the air that Nailbiter was going to be very special indeed, possibly the latest Image #1 to make a big splash. It says a lot that in the week that both Marvel and DC’s big crossover events of the year debuted – Original Sin and Future’s End respectively – the coverage and “book of the week” accolades going to Nailbiter threatened to upstage both of them. And having read the first issue myself, I can assure you it’s worthy of the hype. Mike Henderson’s moody artwork is a revelation, and while Joshua Williamson already turned heads last year with his impressive work on Ghosted, but Nailbiter sees him up his writing game once more. A single issue efficiently presents us with a well-realised world with intriguing/disturbing characters, and a steady accumulation of dread literally visualised on the page with a recurring THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP heartbeat growing ever more prevalent.

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But as impressive as Nailbiter was, in my humble opinion The Woods just about matched it step-for-step. From Boom! Studios – the latest addition to their slate of quality original content as they become ever more serious in emerging as a match for Image’s dominance of the creator-owned market – from writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas, The Woods tells the story of a high school filled with pupils and staff which is suddenly and without explanation teleported to an alien world, at which point the people in the dramatically relocated building very quickly find themselves having to fight for their lives against monstrous alien beasts out to hunt them. The plot very quickly becomes gripping, and drew me in as a reader both in terms of the immediate tension presented in the high-stakes nature of the characters’ plight, and in a more overarching sense of thinking of the larger mystery behind how and why the school was brought to this world. But what really made The Woods stand out was the characters. Amongst the 513 people caught in this extra-terrestrial event, a small core ensemble of characters quickly emerge as figures to care about and get emotionally invested, already been drawn as real, likeable kids whose safety we are going to fear for. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Manga horror classic Drifting Classroom, pushing the same buttons of intense claustrophobia, child endangerment and what sides of human nature will emerge out in the wilderness, but with enough of an American twist to give it its own identity.

TheWoods1So, two horror comics debut in the same week, both are quality books with buzz and critical acclaim behind them. What is it indicative of, if anything? It’s not like the comic medium is any stranger to horror. There’s in fact a rich history of horror comics. The biggest creator-owned comic in the industry today is The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror comic, though I’d argue it’s evolved into more of a sweeping post-apocalyptic epic. And in recent years we’ve had our share of modern classics in the genre: Locke & Key, Severed, Echoes. But what stands out as different this year is the density with which these horror titles are hitting, and the splash they’re making. Nailbiter and The Woods both seem poised to go from strength to strength, but there are more debuts on the horizon. Spread, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Kyle Strahm, is built around the delicious high-concept of “The Thing meets Lone Wolf and Cub,” and boasts some truly blood-curdling imagery. It caused a sensation at last year’s New York Comic Con, and now Image Comics have picked it up and have it slated for a July release. It got a major spotlight in this month’s Previews, and is already starting to build something of a social media steamroller behind it as that advance buzz brews. Watch this become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

Spread1As the summer continues to roll on into August and beyond, some of the biggest names in comics will be getting in on the action. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock – the creative team behind one of the most celebrated Batman stories of the past decade, The Black Mirror – are reteaming for Image Comics to bring us Wytches. Now, Snyder is no stranger to the horror genre. One could argue he cut his teeth in the genre, with both his breakthrough Vertigo hit American Vampire (which since its Second Cycle relaunch has really seemed to bring the horror to the fore) and the aforementioned Severed. Even his mainstream DC work on the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing has had a fair share of horror elements injected into it, and The Wake was rich in horror trappings before morphing into an equally compelling but tonally distinct entity in its second half. So it makes a statement when Snyder talks about Wytches being the darkest and scariest he’s ever gone. This is something that’s quite fascinating for me, as horror is still something of a frontier in comics, and creators are still experimenting with how best to use the medium to scare the reader. Snyder has already been amongst the most successful, with Severed in particular making for harrowing reading, so when some of the best in the field are pushing at the forefront and striving to go further than they ever have, it suggests it’s an exciting time to be a fan of horror comics.

Wytches1Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a horror comic is also on the agenda for Nameless, another Image Comics offering. This also sees the reunion of the creative team of an acclaimed Batman run, this time Batman Inc, as artist Chris Burnham pairs up once more with writer and comics legend Grant Morrison. Details of this series have been sparse, and we don’t even have a concrete release date yet, but Burnham has talked about this being “the ultimate horror comic,” while Morrison has suggested that his ambition is to capture the zeitgeist and use Nameless to project a definitive statement about what frightens us on a primal level in modern society – “doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation,” as Morrison puts it – and considering that when Morrison set out to make the definitive statement on the superhero he gave us All Star Superman, we should all be very afraid at what he has in store for us with Nameless.

Nameless1But even with these big name talents with debuts lined up, there is one horror comic that I’m looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first heard about it last year, there has been a graphic novel pencilled in as one of my premiere comic events of the year. The graphic novel I’m talking about is Through the Woods, by writer/artist Emily Carroll. When last I heard, it was set for a July release, but the marketing has been quite low-profile. But those who know about it are very excited about it indeed, as Emily Carroll is arguably the current master of the horror comic. His Face All Red is one of the single greatest horror stories to emerge from any medium in recent years. Like all the best horror, it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, makes you think, makes you ask questions then leaves you troubled in the late hours by the implied answers. Her work has been a big inspiration to me in terms of opening my eyes to what kind of horror was possible in comic form. And up until now, her output has all been in the form of free webcomics. Through the Woods marks Emily Carroll’s first foray into the realm of print, with His Face All Red being collected with some new stories. Any horror fan should be marking this down as an essential purchase. In the grand picture of “the summer of horror” and the rise of horror in comics, Through the Woods could end up being the most important book of all.

ThroughTheWoods1There’s a quote from actor/writer Mark Gatiss I particularly like, spoken at the beginning of the BBC documentary series, A History of Horror:

The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.

Just as horror films at their best have a unique power with the way they utilise the tools of that medium in the most visceral and potent of ways, I think that the comic medium has the same potential for engaging the senses. It’s a visual medium, and a well-crafted image can be seared on a reader’s psyche, yet despite the notable works in the field I feel like much of that potential remains untapped. Recently, I feel like horror cinema has lost much of its edge, and there haven’t been that many genuinely great horror films over the past several years. So, I talked about the frontier before, and I believe that more and more comics could become the proving ground where we go to scare ourselves in the most inventive and rewarding manner. For years I’ve felt like the horror market for comics could be huge, and this year it feels like we could be taking major steps in that direction. I don’t claim to be anywhere on the level of all these exciting works making their way to comic shops in the coming weeks and months, but if all the “summer of horror” does indeed prove to be a significant movement in the comics industry, I’m proud that And Then Emily Was Gone can be part of it.

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And Then Emily Was Gone #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY141251.  For more info, follow the Facebook page or check out the official blog.

Through the Woods is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code APR141272

Spread #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY140579

Wytches is released in August.  Nameless does not yet have a release date. 

Nailbiter #1 and The Woods #1 are available to buy now from all quality comic shops.

My Top Twenty Comics of 2013

Welcome back once again to my annual countdown of my favourite comics from the year that was.  You might have noticed that while on the previous three occasions I’ve ran this countdown on my blog the list has been a Top 10, this time round it’s been expanded to a Top 20.  And that is testament to how much of a truly spectacular year 2013 has been for comics.  There has been a wealth of fantastic new titles launched over the past 12 months, while established books have gone from strength to strength, and we’ve even seen a few comics that had been on the decline finding a new lease of life to blast them back onto the radar.  There were so many quality comics that it didn’t feel fair to just put a spotlight on the best 10 this year.  Indeed, it proved to be a struggle narrowing the list down to a top 20, even!  2013 has been a banner year for comics.  At this point I tend to talk a little about how my own reading habits have shifted in the intervening year.  Last year I talked about Image being on the rise, and that trend has continued in 2013, with Marvel and DC all but dropping off the map in my weekly comics haul while more and more Image titles get added to the point where they now utterly dominate my monthly reading.  A reminder of my rules for eligibility: the comic has to either be a graphic novel/oneshot released in 2013, or an ongoing/miniseries that has had 3 or more issues released in 2013 at the time of writing.  This means that while the likes of Velvet, Pretty Deadly, Drumhellar and The Sandman: Overture had stellar first issues, none of them have had enough issues for them to qualify.  Perhaps they’ll show up on next year’s list!  Finally, I should point out this is the first year I’ve done the list that Scalped wasn’t in contention, having finished last year, so that top spot is WIDE OPEN!  Who’ll be #1 of 2013?  Read on and see…

 

20. SWAMP THING

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Swamp Thing is a title that suffered from something of a steep fall from grace.  I remember way back when issue #1 hit as part of DC’s New 52 launch, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Yanick Paquette, I declared it the best of all DC’s new #1s.  But going into the “Rotworld” storyline I felt the quality slip a little, and so I had resigned myself to likely dropping the title after Snyder’s departure, only deciding to give incoming writer Charles Soule a go for an issue to confirm my decision.  Boy was I wrong!  Charles Soule, working mostly with artists Kano and Jesus Saiz on rotation, has knocked this title out of the park since coming onboard, utterly reinvigorating the series and giving it a bold new direction and sense of forward momentum.  Rather than trying to ape Snyder’s style, Soule is doing his own thing here, returning Swamp Thing to more of a pulpy superhero aesthetic, and letting Swamp Thing make some cool, inventive uses of his plant powers.  Every month, Soule does something new to impress me.  First, he’s gifting Alec Holland with a natural, relatable voice through his narration.  Then, he’s finding fresh wrinkles in the history of The Green to expand and enrichen Swamp Thing’s mythology.  Then he utterly leaves the rest of the Villain’s Month oneshots in the dust with a tale that succeeds in making Anton Arcane skin-crawlingly scary again.  Now, with this current story featuring Swamp Thing battling Jason Woodrue over The Green’s avatar mantle, he’s hitting us with some of the most nail-biting cliffhangers and shock reversals of Big Two comics.  Meanwhile, Kano and Saiz carry on the tradition of Wrightson, Bissette, Veitch and Paquette with their flair for visual innovation, crafting awe-inspiring page compositions.  I’ve said it before, and I’m not the only one to make the comparison, but for me, Swamp Thing has become DC’s answer to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, in the way it can feel both like an homage to all that’s come before and a fresh new start unburdened by the darkness of past storylines, and is just pure, exhilarating fun.  Those who did drop the comic after Scott Snyder left are missing out!

 

19. CHEW

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Chew continues to see-saw in and out of my top 10.  As I said last year, it’s not really a reflection on the quality of the title, which has remained consistently entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny, but more on the emergence of hot new titles vying for attention.  It’s interesting, because I can remember when Chew was the new kid on the block, arguably the first in that new wave of white-hot Image issue #1 buzz-books, and now it has reached the point where it is a most venerable stalwart of the Image lineup, several years and nearly 40 issues into its run.  I think one factor in its slip down the rankings this year is that it feels like there have been a lot of occasions where the wait between issues has been a good bit longer than a month.  I seem to be going through this pattern lately of getting the new issue of Chew when it comes out, and not being able to really recall what happened in the previous issue, and taking a while to getting round to read this latest one.  But then when I finally do sit down to read the new issue, I immensely enjoy it and feel keen to get to the next chapter.  And then the cycle repeats itself.  So, Chew might be in need of a little extra spark to reassert itself up amongst the best of the best in Image’s ever-growing lineup, but it’s definitely not in any danger of being dropped, as John Layman and Rob Guillory continue to deliver a comic packed with delicious goodness. 

18. STRANGE ATTRACTORS

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Charles Soule again, this time paired up with Greg Scott in this delightfully smart and inventive comic from Archaia.  This was one of my best purchases from New York Comic Con, with Archaia’s typically superb production values making it a beautiful hardcover graphic novel package.  Strange Attractors tells the story of bright academic Heller Wilson becoming the protégé of aging genius/eccentric Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who may or may not have spent the past 30 years secretly keeping New York City running through the power of super-maths.  It’s a masterfully-structured tale, the various narrative threads weaving together like strands of a complex equation.  There’s an ominous air of impending doom hanging over much of the story as it steadily moves forward, quietly immersing you, but the end result is surprisingly inspirational and upbeat.  A highly potent love letter to New York City, and one that certainly made me miss it, having read this shortly after returning home to Scotland.  This year has really seen Charles Soule mark himself out as a real writer of note, and I for one am keen to see what he has lined up for 2014. 

 

17. SHELTERED

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If you’d told me that Lazarus wouldn’t make my top 20 list back when I read issue #1, I’d have laughed you out of the room.  I remember being hugely impressed back when I read the first issue of that new series, thinking this was sure to be one of the standout debuts of the year… then a week later Sheltered came along and trumped it.  Sheltered #1 was just a textbook example of how to grab readers by the proverbial baw-hairs and DEMAND their attention and continued reading, with Ed Brisson evocatively building up a well-realised status quo and ruthlessly tearing it down all in the space of a single comic book.  Out of the ashes of that devastation has risen a tense, haunting tale about children forced to become adults and largely failing at the task, and a harsh study of survival and evil.  And the art of Johnnie Christmas and colours of Shari Chankhamma give the whole thing an ethereal, dreamlike aesthetic, a work of strange, glacial beauty that creates an interesting contrast with some of the horrific things that happen within these pages.  There are many ways Sheltered could go from here, but at this point it has all the makings of a 21st Century Lord of the Flies. 

 

16. GHOSTED

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I’m sure I’ll be writing similar notes throughout this list, but it says something about the incredibly high standard of comics output in 2013 that Ghosted places where it does.  Earlier drafts of this list had both this and Sheltered secure in the top 10.  But rest assured, this is more a reflection on the superlative quality of the year’s books than any slight on Ghosted, a delightfully inventive genre mash-up.  Joshua Williamson’s irresistible “I wish I’d done it first” concept is to mix the classic heist story with the haunted house genre, with our protagonist Jackson T. Winters assembling a crack team of criminal experts for a daring robbery, not to steal money or diamonds, but to steal a ghost from a notorious murder house.  It seemed like a delicious hook for a miniseries, so pure and self-contained.  But the latest issue wonderfully opened up the idea into a bigger world and set the stage for how Williamson’s high-concept could sustain an ongoing.  Though I worry for how the next arc will fare without the indelible contribution of artist Goran Sudzuka, who in 5 issues has excelled in crafting a slick, cool signature style for the book.  Still, the series is off to a strong start, and I’m keen to see what happens next.

 

15. INFINITY

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I had largely sworn off the big Marvel/DC event crossovers.  I gave up on Fear Itself, disregarded Brightest Day, skipped Flashpoint, passed on Avengers VS X-Men, ignored Age of Ultron, dismissed Trinity War.  Not since 2010’s Siege had I read an event in its entirety.  But this year has proven to be something of a vintage year for events.  DC’s offering, Forever Evil, has thus far proved pretty enjoyable, though it didn’t quite make the cut for this list.  Marvel, meanwhile, gave us Infinity, a comic I almost never read due to all the talk about how it was impossible to read without a detailed knowledge of Jonathan Hickman’s entire Avengers and New Avengers runs or without buying the tie-ins in those respective books: as a rule of thumb I never buy tie-ins outwith the core event title that I supposedly “have” to read.  But on a whim one day I bought and read the first 5 issues of Infinity and was utterly engrossed, and more recently the 6th and final chapter brought it all home nicely.  You can absolutely enjoy this story without the tie-ins, though I’m sure they make it richer.  This is an event story that actually feels like an event, with Hickman generating an epic, sweeping tone and a grandiose scale.  The combined threat of the Builders to the galaxy as a whole and Thanos to Earth in particular creates a sense of seemingly insurmountable adversity, making it all the more awesome when The Avengers triumph in the face of it.  Thor gets one of his most badass moments ever.  An ultimate underdog fight between Black Bolt and Thanos is set up so powerfully that I was made into a fan of the Inhumans.  Various characters I’d never heard of before were presented as major players who I’m now invested in learning more about.  And the finale managed to both provide a satisfying resolution and set the seeds for numerous storylines that will likely be picked up on down the line in Hickman’s various Avengers titles, as opposed to just being an advertisement for the next event.  Easily the best crossover event from either company in years, and a shining example of how it should be done. 

 

14. THE WALKING DEAD

WalkingDeadNeganWhat a decline The Walking Dead has suffered in my estimations over the years!  After ranking near the top of my list in 2010, it dropped off the top ten in 2011, and by early 2012 I was beginning to question if I was just buying the book out of habit and whether or not I should just drop it.  But issue #100 marked a major turning point for the series, reinvigorating Image’s most famous series and giving it a compelling new direction that saw the title on an upward curve throughout the rest of 2012.  That trend has continued into 2013, with Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s zombie opus now the best it’s been in years.  And a big part of that is down to the new Big Bad, Negan.  A lot of people argue the series was at its absolute best during the Governor/Woodbury saga (I disagree, personally identifying the period immediately after the departure from the prison, up to and including the “Fear the Hunters” arc as the best, though the Governor stuff comes close), and that the loss of momentum has been due to the lack of a similarly formidable villain.  Well, now Negan has truly filled that void.  He’s a suitably different beast to The Governor too, with a twisted code of ethics and dark sense of humour that has at times even made him weirdly likeable: who thought I’d go from instantly wanting him dead in issue #100 to ranking him as one of my favourite characters?  I still want him to get his comeuppance, though.  The series is going from strength to strength with the way it has built up this new, wider world for Rick, Carl, Michonne and co to exist in, and with the 10th Anniversary “All Out War” storyline already proving explosive, it seems things are set to get even better!

 

13. FATALE

Fatale4Another comic to go from strength to strength this year, Fatale was always an interesting series, but one that very much went for the slow-boil approach.  But with its past couple of arcs, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ blend of noir and Lovecraftian horror has really started to turn up the heat.  First, a collection of standalone issues from various periods in history served to expand the mythos of the series in fascinating ways.  And now, Fatale has soared to new heights with this current storyline, with the timeline jumping forward to the indie music scene of the early 90s, and a disquieting moral fable that has served to crystallize the haunted tragedy, the irresistible allure and the poisonous influence of our mysterious protagonist Josephine more compellingly than any other storyline in the title up until now.  Up until now we’ve been told how all men fall for her and find themselves obsessing over her, but this story has truly immersed us in this happening and made us believe it.  With the way Brubaker and Phillips has introduced this poignantly human cast of characters and systematically destroyed them reminds me of the classic “24 Hour Diner” issue of The Sandman with Dr. Destiny.  Fatale as a series continues to evolve and improve, while this arc in particular stands as the best single thing Brubaker and Phillips have done since Criminal: Last of the Innocent. 

 

12. ZERO

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Zero is an interesting comic, in that it seemed to be under the radar for quite a while, then all of a sudden it picked up a lot of buzz as the release of the first issue drew near.  Much was made of the innovative approach to the series, which would see writer Ales Kot tell ostensibly done-in-one standalone tales with the eponymous hero, super-spy Edward Zero, with a different artist illustrating each story.  It’s a great concept, one that made me give the series a try, but I was thrilled to discover that the execution was even better.  In the three issues released thus far, artists Michael Walsh, Tradd Moore and Mateus Santalouco have all delivered some stunning imagery, their disparate styles unified by the majestic colours of Jordie Bellaire.  Ales Kot, who has shown creative promise with the likes of Wild Children and Change, here delivers his most accomplished work to date, taking that supposedly episodic framework and in fact crafting an intricately connected narrative tapestry, which we’re uncovering out of chronological order, but which I feel is going to take shape into an immensely compelling whole, once the series has been given more time to unfold.  If Zero continues to build momentum the way it has this early in its run, look at it as a serious contender to leap into the top 10 on next year’s list.

 

11. DUNGEON FUN

DungeonFun2Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat.  As I mentioned in my intro at the top, the usual perimeters for eligibility on this list include either being a graphic novel/oneshot, or in the cases of ongoings/miniseries’, that 3 or more issues were released in the contended year.  Dungeon Fun only had one issue released.  And given that I usually enforce this rule so rigorously, even cutting out MonkeyBrain’s Bandette from inclusion of an earlier draft of my list once I realised only two issues had been released this year, a book has to be pretty special to supersede it.  With Dungeon Fun, there are a couple of mitigating factors.  For one, small press titles work on a very different schedule than something released monthly or bi-monthly through Diamond, and in many cases it’s unreasonable for such books to have more than three issues within a year.  But more pressingly, it’s just too damn good to ignore.  A delightful fantasy romp that has rode a veritable tidal wave of critical adulation here in the UK, drawing comparisons to such diverse inspirations as Monty Python, Adventure Time, The Princess Bride and the Legend of Zelda games, Dungeon Fun is truly “all ages” not in the patronising, ghettoised “Y’know, for kids!” way some interpret it, but in the sense that it can capture the imaginations of audiences of all ages.  The wonderful artwork of Neil Slorance is brimming with energy and imagination, projecting this sense of fun and accessibility, and I was able to see first-hand on the convention floor how kids gravitated towards this book and eagerly grabbed a copy.  And the grown-ups can appreciate the razor-sharp wit of Colin Bell’s script, packing laugh-out-loud gags with a density approaching Airplane levels.  This is a book that lives up to its title, as in terms of pure FUN there’s not a single comic released this year that was able to leave a smile on my face as big as Dungeon Fun #1 did.  I know that last year, quite a few people picked up Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain on the basis of my recommendation in my year-end list, so I can only say that this book comes just as heartily recommended.  Get your copy here: https://sellfy.com/p/3EZi/.

 

10. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

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And while we’re talking about “books that would have ranked if only 3 issues had been released in the year” scenarios, in last year’s 2012 top ten, Thor: God of Thunder #3 came out about a week after I posted up my list.  And that’s a shame, as if that issue had come out sooner (or the list had gone up later), based on the immense quality of those first three issues, Thor: God of Thunder would very likely have broken my top 5.  Fast forward a year, and again I find myself talking about the intense competition and insanely high quality of 2013’s output having some great titles ranking lower than I expected.  But this shouldn’t be read as any decline in quality from Scalped writer (and perennial favourite of this annual year-end countdown) Jason Aaron’s take on Thor: this remains, in my opinion, Marvel’s best title.  The epic 11-chapter “God Butcher” saga that dominated the first year of the series was Thor’s answer to Batman’s “Court of Owls” epic, in how it used the introduction of a deadly new enemy to dig into its iconic hero’s history, push them to the brink of defeat and despair, and ultimately have them kick mega ass.  And Esad Ribic further demonstrated why he’s one of my absolute favourite artists with breathtaking visuals and a magnificent design for villain Gorr.  We then got a pensive, poignant oneshot exploring Thor’s place as a hero, a god and a man in the modern world, before Ron Garney stepped in on art duties for the currently-ongoing storyline, “Accursed”, which has presented a Malekith far more formidable than his cinematic counterpart, and presented a tale by turns funny, dramatic, and strangely relevant as a parable of the nature of war and military intervention in the real world.  With next year promising the return of Esad Ribic, Thor: God of Thunder should continue to be Marvel’s MVP well into 2014.

 

9. FIVE GHOSTS

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Over the past year or so, I’ve seen talk about how Image is too big now, how it’s become a playground for famous, established names in the comics field to bring their creator-owned properties to, and thus it’s lost its status as the publisher that gives a platform to exciting new creators.  But then something like Five Ghosts comes along and reaffirms Image’s status as a launching pad for the next generation of comics stars.  Though both do have credits to their name, writer Frank J Barbiere and artist Chris Mooneyham could still be considered newcomers to the wider comics stage, and yet they delivered one of the best Image series launches of a year filled with them.  An ode to pulp adventure spliced with a hearty dose of Gothic horror, Five Ghosts introduces us to Fabian Gray, an explorer whose encounter with an artefact known as the Dreamstone has left him with the ability to channel the abilities of five literary spirits.  Cue some relentlessly paced adventure courtesy of Barbiere’s brisk, action-packed scripts, while Chris Mooneyham has emerged as one of the breakout artists of 2013 with his luscious, evocative visuals that hark back to classic comics of the 70s and 80s.  Five Ghosts began life as a miniseries, but it’s no surprise it got promoted to ongoing status.  No one could have read those stellar first 5 issues and not wanted more of this character and this world.  After an enjoyable fill-in issue skilfully illustrated by Garry Brown, Barbiere and Mooneyham are back in the saddle for a second arc that seems set to draw in the swashbuckling pirate adventure into its melting pot of pulp homage.  And if all that wasn’t enough to cement its place in my top 10, each issue of Five Ghosts now comes with added Doc Unknown: the similarly pulp-infused comic from Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody almost made the top 20 in its own right, and is now a regular backup feature in Five Ghosts.  This title is a joy to read, and from pointing it out to people at my local comic shop to giving copies of the Haunting of Fabian Gray graphic novel out as Christmas gifts, I have and will continue to spread the word to those I know that Five Ghosts is worth your attention.

 

8. THE PRIVATE EYE

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The Private Eye caught a lot of people on the back-foot.  One day, sites began running teaser images of a mysterious new comic from writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin.  What could it be?  Who would be publishing it?  Many of us were preparing ourselves for months of tantalising teasers leading to a big release from someone like Image, but the very next day, The Private Eye launched online, self-published by Vaughan and Martin under their Panel Syndicate imprint, going under a “pay what you want” system, with downloading a digital copy of the comic for free an option.  I’ve bought each issue for $2.99, as it’s easily worth that.  There are few people in comics that do an issue #1 better than Vaughan, and The Private Eye continued that tradition, giving us a dystopian/utopian vision of a future where there is no internet, where in place of online identities people walk around with literal masks to craft their own personas, and the media has become the most powerful law enforcement entity on the planet.  Enter paparazzi/private investigator P.I., and we’re thrown into a futuristic take on a classic, pulpy gumshoe noir.  We’ve had 4 issues thus far, and equally recommended is the special “making of” comic released that delved into the process of creating this comic from the ground up.  Reading this gives you a strong idea of just how centrally involved artist Marcos Martin was in the building of this world and the telling of this story, his vision for the world so integral to the success of the story that his absence is unimaginable.  I’ve read quite a few quality digital comics this year, with MonkeyBrain’s output in particular proving consistently entertaining.  But The Private Eye stands as the cream of the crop. 

 

7. NOWHERE MEN

NowhereMen1Here’s an entry that threw a spanner in the works.  Before heading down to Thought Bubble last month, I thought I had my top 20 pretty much figured out.  I still needed to shuffle around the ordering here and there, but the actual content of the list seemed to be finalised.  But then I bought the first graphic novel collection of Nowhere Men at the show, and decided to read it on the train home to Glasgow… I ended up devouring the whole book in a single frenzied sitting during the journey.  I immediately wanted it in the top 20, popping it in at the bottom spot: this is what finally chopped Lazarus off the list, I’m afraid!  But upon going back to the book and rereading parts, I just fell in love with the craft of the thing more and more, and it steadily climbed up and up in my rankings until it reached the slot it’s at now, and even then I flirted with the notion of putting it higher.  The best comics don’t just tell a story, they create a world for the reader, and that’s what writer Eric Stephenson does with Nowhere Men.  The audacious level of ambition on display here is thrilling, as over the course of the first 6 issues he crafts a tale juggling multiple narrative threads, spanning across multiple generations, and a cast of over a dozen principal players.  It could easily have ended up a train wreck, but Stephenson orchestrates it all with panache, crafting a rich, nuanced alternate history of the world where science had the same kind of pop culture boom that rock-and-roll did in the 1960s, complete with its own answer to The Beatles in the form of the founding members of science dream team World Corp.  It’s a mythology made all the more immersive by the comic’s innovative use of posters and archival newspaper and magazine articles peppered within the comic narrative to flesh out the shape of the world between that pivotal era in the ‘60s and our vastly altered present.  The series as a whole really is a triumph of design, with the team of artist Nate Bellegarde and colorist Jordie Bellaire bringing superheroic flair to the world of cutting-edge science.  Read Nowhere Men, and you really will buy into its central notion that “science is the new rock ‘n’ roll.” 

 

6. SEX CRIMINALS

SexCriminals1aThere are certain times when you know you’ll love a comic as soon as you hear its name.  Such was the case with Sex Criminals.  And I was won over even more when I heard of the high concept behind the series: two people with the power to stop time with their orgasms go on a crime spree.  So, I went into this comic pretty giddy with anticipation, and still managed to be disarmed by how great it was.  I think what took me by surprise is that, though a book like this could have easily just coasted on that central concept and been a whole barrel of fun, it’s instead done something much more.  Over the course of the first three issues, it has managed to craft a genuinely sweet account first of the experience of growing up and discovering your sexuality as a girl, through the heightened prism of our narrator Suzie discovering her powers, then of a boy’s experience of sexual awakening through the story of Jon, then the joy and thrill of beginning a new relationship.  And save for the odd flash-forward, we haven’t even got to the “criminals” part of the title yet!  Reading the phenomenal letters page just confirms the chord these issues have struck with real life experiences of the readers.  And on top of all that, it’s genuinely hilarious, with artist Chip Zdarsky utterly cramming the comic full of brilliant sight gags.  Matt Fraction has been on a real roll lately, but Sex Criminals could very well be the best thing he’s ever written.  Perhaps the only thing preventing it from breaking the top 5 is that, three issues in, I need to read some more to see if the dizzyingly high pace can be sustained over the long term.  Next year’s list will tell the tale!

 

5. BATMAN

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With the ascension of Image Comics, and how (as can be seen by the quantity of their titles to make my list) the vast majority of my monthly reading now seems to be their output, I have considered the possibility of me at some point dropping Marvel and DC entirely.  Could I reach a point where all my favourite creators are doing by far their best work in Image or for other independents, to the point where I feel like I no longer need my superhero fix?  I may have mulled over this hypothetical future briefly, but in truth, so long as there are comics as excellent as Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman out there, I will always remain a fan of superhero comics.  For me, saying “I refuse to read superhero comics” is as limiting as saying “I will only read superhero comics.”  I will read what entertain me the most, and what I feel are the best comics, period, and Batman is serialised comics storytelling at its finest, by any standard.  It had a slight wobble at the start of the year.  As much as I loved “Death of the Family”, the very last chapter didn’t quite stick the landing for me as much as I’d hoped.  Then we had a few more low-key issues that, while entertaining in their own right, didn’t live up to the title at its exhilterating best.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, I hated the concept of “Zero Year” when I first heard it.  But execution is everything, and with one of the finest creative pairings in comics today at the helm, I feel like a fool for ever doubting.  “Zero Year” has been utterly remarkable, with Greg Capullo crafting some of his best artwork yet; really pushing the boundaries and getting increasingly experimental with his layouts and innovations.  And Scott Snyder has skilfully found new wrinkles in the Batman mythos, and ways of making Batman’s well-worn early years feel fresh and dangerous.  One of the big secrets of this title’s continued to success is that, at its core, Snyder has made it a Bruce Wayne character study, with each major arc picking apart a different weakness, bringing out the vulnerability in a character all too often presented as invincible.  In this character-driven approach to its iconic hero, I think people are perhaps misguided in comparing “Zero Year” to Year One.  If anything, it’s Batman’s answer to Birthright.  For the third year running, Batman closes the year out as not only the biggest, but also the best superhero comic currently on the shelves.

 

4. SAGA

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Woe betide poor Saga!  Last year was the closest-fought battle for the #1 spot I’ve ever had in trying to decide between the top two entries in my year-end list.  In the end, Jeff Lemire’s instant classic The Underwater Welder only just squeezed past Saga to top my list of the best comics of 2012.  But I took heart in thinking that Saga was in for the long haul, and was all but guaranteed to top this year’s list.  I had it pencilled in for the #1 spot from January.  But over the course of this year, sadly, I feel like the mighty Saga lost a step.  Only a step, mind, but even that slight faltering, combined with the massive impression made on me by the three remaining entries on the list, were enough to have that prized #1 slot slip from Saga’s fingers once more.  I think its downfall was that a lack of forward motion or a sense of urgency in the plot, particularly in this current third arc.  I do feel like the ending of this most recent issue signals that the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan and things are really going to start moving, but up until now it feels like much of the narrative progression has ground to a halt in favour of just hanging out with the characters and getting inside their heads a bit more.  This would be a bigger problem for most books, but thankfully Saga happens to have some of the best characters in comics, and so hanging out with them is a joy in of itself.  Because while I may bring up the concerns about pacing, I’m almost not bothered about the wider story of the intergalactic war going on, as I’m so engrossed with what Marco, Alana, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat et al are up to, the interesting conversations about life and love they’re having.  I’ve actually got a sneaking suspicion that Brian K Vaughan is in fact trying to stealthily get us into an intimate family drama about what it means to be a parent and to be a child, about the families we’re both born into and that we make for ourselves,  and he just cleverly disguised it as a sweeping sci-fi/fantasy epic.  His cast are so fully realised that I already feel like I know them, and so it’s extra devastating when any of them die, or even placed in mortal danger.  And what can be said about Fiona Staples that hasn’t already been said?  In her tenure on this title, she has evolved into one of the premier artists in comics, and each issue is packed with more beautiful imagery and masterful characterisation.  This is true superstar work, and her work here has secured her spot on the comic artist A-list for years to come.  It’ll be interesting to see how Saga fares next year.  Will it go down the list if the pace continues to frustrate?  Or will it go up the rankings if the plot kicks into motion, or if I more fully embrace the narrative working on a whole other level than what I’d perhaps originally anticipated?  Perhaps next year it might even claim that elusive #1 spot?

 

3. THE WAKE

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Surprisingly, Batman is not the highest-ranked Scott Snyder comic on my list.  No, that accolade goes to The Wake, his collaboration with artist Sean Murphy.  With American Vampire spending most of this year in hiatus, The Wake was left to fill the void in Snyder Vertigo output, and it instantly became the imprint’s standout title for the bulk of 2013.  Channelling the likes of Alien and The Thing, The Wake tells the story of marine biologist Lee Archer, taken down to a secret base at the bottom of the ocean with various other aquatic experts, where they quickly end up stranded and pitted against monstrous creatures from the black depths below.  I think there is something inherently alien and frightening about the deep, deep sea, and Sean Murphy’s visuals here prove utterly masterful at capturing that sense of isolation and claustrophobia.  I first became a fan of his on American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest, and what I’ve seen of Punk Rock Jesus is very impressive, but this is Murphy’s most accomplished work yet, true auteur stuff.  Snyder, meanwhile, managed to craft a narrative packed with tension, shock reversals and genuine frights, but his most audacious move has come at the halfway point, which we’ve now reached as the year comes to a close.  If The Wake had just been a 5-part miniseries about this horrific ordeal experienced by this ensemble of characters we come to care about in their deep sea base, it would have been considered a home run success as an intimate, tightly-contained thriller.  But Snyder is instead doing something much more ambitious, weaving vignettes of the distant past and the impending apocalyptic future through the narrative, and setting the stage for the second phase of the series, which promises to explode open the scope of the story into a tale of global dystopia in a catastrophic future where the siege of phase one has escalated into all-out war for the future of mankind.  It’s risky, as if it doesn’t work the whole thing could collapse.  But if he pulls it off, it’s going to be spectacular.  When it’s all said and done, I can see The Wake standing as a trademark comic for both Snyder and Murphy: when it’s all collected in a lovely hardback, that’s always going to be a hot seller.  And I can already see The Wake being a hit movie in a few years.  But that might be getting ahead of ourselves.  First, let’s see if issues #6-#10 can be executed as note-perfect as issues #1-#5 were.  With the talent involved, I’m confident!

 

2. EAST OF WEST

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It’s strange seeing East of West ranked above Saga, considering back when East of West #1 came out I wrote I talked about the parallels between the two titles, and how I felt that Saga #1 did a better job of introducing its world.  In fact, I didn’t warm to East of West right away, originally dropping it after issue #2, so I remained vocal in my affirmation that Saga was the superior series.  But I continued to hear good things about East of West, so I ended up getting the first graphic novel around the time issue #6 came out to give it another try.  As it turns out, I was a fool.  A blind fool!  Something just clicked for me on repeat reading, and I fell in love.  Really, the comparisons with Saga only work on the barest of surface levels, as this is ultimately a different beast.  Saga is using the backdrop of a massive, epic intergalactic war to tell a very small, intimate, personal story about a family’s struggle for survival.  East of West is telling a massive, epic story that’s staggering in scale, so much so I feel like even now we’ve yet to taken in the full scope of its multi-pronged narrative.  It’s a story so big I don’t think I can do it justice in this paragraph, but basically it’s about an alternate history of America, one where the Civil War went a different way and ended up with America divided into 7 nations, and our story begins with the time drawing near where the Four Horsemen are destined to bring about the end of the world.  Only one of them, Death, has his own agenda, one that involves getting revenge on those who wronged him and reclaiming a lost love.  Each issue is an exercise in giving us a piece of the puzzle, unlocking another part of this sprawling world and hinting at how it might connect into the bigger picture.  You get a firm sense in reading that writer Jonathan Hickman has this whole universe intricately mapped out, and each chapter is just him methodically shining a spotlight on it one small chunk at a time.  And that first issue I originally found to be less accessible than Saga #1 has opened itself up as a rich exercise in world-building, and an immensely enjoyable comics package in itself, one I’ve revisited just about as much as Saga #1 by now.  The series as a whole has offered up great reread value for me, with my Volume 1 graphic novel having already got a good battering from how well-thumbed it’s become.  A good deal of that is because artist Nick Dragotta makes the comic an absolute pleasure to look at, each page a breathtaking work of art I want to hang on my wall.  It is Dragotta’s flair for design that has brought Hickman’s vast ensemble cast to life.  As last month’s 30 Characters Showcase feature on my blog demonstrated, East of West has just been a machine for pumping out memorable new characters this year, emerging from the ether fully-formed and instantly iconic.  A friend of mine described East of West to me as Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” as a comic.  I can see where he got that from, but I disagree.  For me, it’s Ennio Morricone’s “Man with a Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West as a comic.  With East of West, Hickman and Dragotta have crafted a work of desolate beauty that stands as the best new comic of 2013, a year packed full of excellent new comics.  

 

1.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

ManhattanProjects11bIt’s a Jonathan Hickman double-header!  For me, when it comes to comics, 2013 was the year of The Manhattan Projects.  It was always a good comic: it placed very respectably at #6 last year, and almost as early as I’d decided on Saga as my likely #1 comic of 2013, I’d pencilled in The Manhattan Projects at #2.  But in 2013, it’s like a switch flipped and the series catapulted from “very good” to “mind-blowingly fantastic.”  Literally, right from the start of the year: it was January’s issue #8 specifically that I identify as the series truly hitting its stride and launching into a chain of A+ issues that hasn’t been broken since.  The issues released in 2012 were all about setting the stage, introducing us to an alternate vision of 1940s America where the gathering of famed scientists for the construction of the atomic bomb was in fact a cover for numerous other, more dangerous and outlandish experiments, and none of those beloved scientific minds of history were what they seemed.  By the end of last year, representatives of America, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (not to mention the odd alien planet and alternate dimension) had gathered under The Manhattan Projects and declared themselves beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation.  And so, with 2013, we launched into the consequences of this action, with Oppenheimer, Einstein, Feynman, Von Braun and co pitted against an Illuminati-type organisation of figureheads representing entrenched power and the old way of thinking, led by none other than an orgy-loving mason President Truman, and a reanimated A.I. President Roosevelt.  Yes, this happened.  January’s issue #8 did the unthinkable by making us root for and even grudgingly respect Von Braun, who up until this point (and after it, really) has been portrayed as an unrepentant Nazi bastard, as he battled against the odds against A.I. Roosevelt.  Then issue #9 turned the tables with a massacre montage of Godfather proportions, cementing the scientists’ of The Manhattan Projects’ status as rulers of the world.  It was also the issue that confirmed for me that, more than any book starring The Avengers, the Justice League or the X-Men, The Manhattan Projects is the best team book in comics.  After that, issue #10 saw guest artist Ryan Browne tell an absolutely bonkers story from within the fractured mind of Joseph Oppenheimer, where the absorbed consciousness of Robert Oppenheimer punched horses and witnessed Being John Malkovich type scenes of legions of Oppenheimers engaged in acts of depravity.  Issue #11 switched gears again with a poignant character study of Harry Daghlian, the most human of the entire ensemble cast despite being a flaming radioactive skull in a containment suit.  Issue #12 then flipped that around into an emotional gut punch that cast scenes from earlier in the series in a disturbing new light.  From there, it became clear that, if the first arc of the series was about the team being assembled, and the second arc was about it reaching the height of its power, the third arc was about the team becoming fragmented by threats from within. 

 

I can happily rattle off issue-by-issue accounts of what went on without needing to go back to my comics for reference, because I’ve read each issue so often as to know the chronology of what’s happened pretty much by heart.  Even without anything else, that alone would probably be enough to justify its #1 spot here.  More than any other comic I read this year, The Manhattan Projects held the most reread value for me, where I could repeatedly read the whole thing from the beginning, or jump into issues out of order, and continue to enjoy it and get more from it.  That to me says I got more enjoyment from these comics than any other on the list, and to put anything else at #1 would be patently dishonest on my part.  But thankfully, there’s so much more evidence to support the title’s claim at the top spot.  Every member of the creative team triumphs in their role.  Writer Jonathan Hickman’s profile is arguably larger than ever right now, coming off Infinity and with his acclaimed role as master architect of the Avengers line for Marvel, but The Manhattan Projects remains his most fun, accessible book.  And it’s so character-driven, too.  Each member of the cast is so well-realised that I find myself thinking about where their story will take them or absently doodling them the way I might do about Batman or Spider-Man, and it’s even made me more interested in reading up on their real world counterparts.  If East of West is a vast puzzle that is gradually pieced together, The Manhattan Projects is much more about instant gratification, throwing jaw-dropping concepts at us and packing crazy revelations into each issue, only to then detonate that status quo and launch us into something new and even more exciting, like Hickman’s daring himself to somehow manage to maintain this crazy pace.  We’ve seen new world orders be formed and dissolved, and central characters have been maimed or killed in the process.  It’s a thrill-ride, but doesn’t sacrifice the smarts in the process.  Artist Nick Pitarra has grown leaps and bounds over the course of the series, going from an intriguing emerging artist who drew influence from some of my favourites in the field to becoming a master storyteller in his own right.  Each issue of The Manhattan Projects is a dense read that I take my time on, and a large part of that is that Pitarra crams into each page visual detail that enriches the narrative and the characterisation, in keeping with the spirit of the script but quite independent of it.  I savour and dwell on each page of a given issue, marvelling at the construction and becoming immersed in this twisted world Pitarra presents to us.  I mentioned that I like doodling characters from the comic, and I end up doodling them in a crude approximation of Pitarra’s style, because that’s how those characters look to me… they seem more real in his style than they do as real physical humans in old photographs.  And his perfect partner is colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire, who textures Pitarra’s figures just right to give them a cartoonish, spritely weight on the page.  Her influence on the aesthetic of the book has become so indelible that she ended up recoloring the early issues she didn’t draw for the trades, because now those early issues just don’t look right without her.  Even letterer Rus Wooton was given opportunity to showcase his deft work this year, with one extended sequence in issue #12 really requiring him to take centre stage and shoulder the weight of the narrative.  These guys really have come together to form what is for me a comics dream team. 

 

I find it galling that The Manhattan Projects doesn’t get more recognition.  Of course, those who read it love it, and sing its praises.  But I sometimes see major comics news sites not bother to review new issues on the week of its release, and it’s been annoyingly absent on some of the year-end lists I’ve seen.  This seemed to be the case with previous list-topper Scalped as well, though its status seems to have grown some since its conclusion.  But it’s there loss, as month in month out, I get more enjoyment from The Manhattan Projects than anything on the shelves.  On an issue-by-issue basis, it’s a joy.  As an extended serialised narrative, it’s a triumph.  And there’s so much I’m itching to see from the series in 2014.  First on the wishlist: what is the secret origin of Ustinov, and how did he end up as a floating brain in a jar?  Will the series maintain its momentum and hold onto the top spot next year?  Who knows?  If this list has shown anything, it’s that there are no sure things, and that there are always new titles clamouring to grab readers’ attention.  But for now, what I can say for certain is that no comic made me love comics in 2013 more than The Manhattan Projects.

ManhattanProjects11c So, to wrap things up, here’s an overview of the annual standings, and what comics have made the #1 spot each year I’ve ran this feature on my blog….

2010: Scalped

2011: Scalped

2012: The Underwater Welder

2013: The Manhattan Projects

 

Thanks for reading, everyone.  Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

30 Character Showcase #26: Meeks

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

26. MEEKS

TheWake3Created by Scott Snyder and Sean Gordon Murphy

Yesterday I talked about how Lee Archer was the emotional core of The Wake.  That may be the case, but I’d say it’s Meeks that steals the show.  Full name Leonard Meeker, he is the wildcard in the ragtag group of marine experts assembled at the beginning of The Wake.  A genius deep-sea engineer turned master hunter and black market trader of rare marine life, he is described as living in a home fortress of his own design floating on international waters outside of anyone’s jurisdiction, due to his status as a notorious criminal.  It’s a fascinating backstory – practically building him up as a larger-than-life supervillain! – that makes it feel like he could be the antagonist of a different story, but in this particular story it’s only a brief burst of exposition amongst all the other things that are going on.

I was gutted when, in issue #3, it seemed like Meeks was killed off in abrupt, premature fashion, in a moment reminiscent of the “Clever girl…” bit in Jurassic Park.  So imagine my joy when he resurfaced in issue #4, and ended up being one of the longest surviving members of the ensemble!  Against the odds, despite him being set up as a villain and a foil for everyone else, his rude, acerbic demeanour makes him oddly likeable, and at the end of the day he ends up getting something of a heroic send-off.  Combine this with a cracking design by Sean Gordon Murphy – a look reminiscent of Lex Luthor of the high seas – and what could have been a throwaway character turned out to instead be highly memorable.

Now… where do we start the petition to have Snyder and Murphy do a Meeks: Magnificent Bastard Super-Pirate prequel series?

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30 Character Showcase #25: Lee Archer

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

25. LEE ARCHER

TheWake1Created by Scott Snyder and Sean Gordon Murphy

Okay, by necessity this spotlight is going to require some spoilery discussion of the first 5 issues of The Wake, the excellent Vertigo series from Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy.  If you haven’t read the story and don’t want to delve into any of the plot twists, best step out of this post now.

Still here?

Okay, in the grand scheme of the narrative of The Wake, as it is laid out by the end of issue #5, Dr. Lee Archer is a character who was always destined to be doomed to a watery grave.  But for the first half of the series, at least, she is our heroine, the chief protagonist who stands as the emotional core of the story.  Right from the first chapter, she feels fully-realised: we don’t go into her history in detail, but we get just enough to hint at the trials in life that have shaped her.  The Wake woud not have the masterful tension it does if it wasn’t for the fact that we invest so much emotionally in the fate of these characters, Lee in particular.  We are rooting for her to overcome the increasingly insurmountable odds and be reunited with her son, and are devastated when even after everything she tries, that ends up not happening.  And that final video-link conversation between Lee and her son is just heartbreaking.  Her poignant final words just about brought a lump to my throat.

I’m interested to  see where The Wake takes its bold new direction moving forward.  But Snyder and Murphy will certainly have their work cut out replacing Lee Archer in the protagonist role.

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REVIEW: Batman #23

Hey, I’m nothing if I’m not topical!  This hot-off-the-presses review comes over a month late.  I’ve started to write it a couple of times, only to change my mind and disregard it, wary that it would be a long rant, and one not many would likely be inclined to read.  Now, several weeks have passed since the release of Batman #23, third chapter of the “Zero Year” saga currently dominating the title, and I’ve now read the comic three times, mulling over what I want to say and how I want to say it.  Well, if you’re reading this, it means this attempt at formulating an opinion is the one I actually finished.  A warning, at the start it’s going to feel like a bit of a downer, but hopefully it’ll end on a positive note!

But first, the downer bit: I hated “Zero Year” from the moment I first heard about it.  Seriously, it was a sea-change moment.  From very early on, Batman was easily my favourite comic in DC’s New 52.  I wrote many a gushing, in-depth review of “The Court of Owls”, a comic which has already earned its place in the canon of all-time great Batman stories.  And “Death of the Family” was fantastic, a horror-tinged approach to my favourite villain, The Joker, as he embarked on a suitably chilling masterplan.  After those two epics, I was waiting with baited breath for the announcement of the next big story coming from the Snyder/Capullo dream team.  But when that announcement turned out to be “Zero Year”… my heart sank.  And for the first time I found myself seriously questioning the creative direction of a title I’d loved so vocally since its inception.

My hatred for the very idea of “Zero Year” is twofold.  First, I hate it on a practical level, where I feel like Batman has set up so many intriguing issues in the present I’m keen for them to develop – the breakdown of the Bat-family in the wake of The Joker’s mindgames, where things are going with Harper Row – that to suddenly go, “Hey guys, we’re just going to take a break from our A-story for a FULL YEAR and go on a jaunt through the past,” it felt like a crippling halt in forward momentum.  And given how thoroughly Batman’s early years have already been covered in ironclad classics such as Year One and The Long Halloween, retreading Batman’s early days felt painfully redundant and unnecessary, especially when 11 issues of the primary Bat-title were being used to do it: Year One did a perfectly respectable job of telling Batman’s origin with 4 issues.

The second reason for my hatred was a lot more nebulous and irrational, but no less pressing: the emotional fanboy kneejerk aversion.  The continuity-hound in me has found more and more frustrations with the tinkering of the New 52, but I could comfort myself in the knowledge that Batman was largely untouched.  “No one is going to touch Year One,” I could whisper reassuringly to myself in the night, “Scott Snyder said so himself in all those interviews!”  And I’m sure Snyder meant it when he said it, but circumstances change, and as plot holes open up they need to be closed in some manner or other, so I don’t blame the guy for rolling with the punches.  But as a passionate fan of stories that were now being rendered out-of-canon, I was gutted.  Just after Grant Morrison has spent years crafting a wonderful vision of Batman where everything that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and it was all important in informing his character, I hated the idea of the New 52 making giving us a new version where nothing that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and none of it is important in informing his character.

So here I was, in danger of becoming the very kind of “hater” I can’t stand.  If there was one reason I didn’t immediately drop the title, it’s the creative team.  The superstar pairing of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have, for my money, positioned themselves right up there alongside the likes of Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Doug Moench/Jim Aparo and Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and so had more than earned the benefit of the doubt to at least give “Zero Year” a try.  And it was that rich bedrock of accumulated goodwill that got me through the first two chapters.  I was torn: Snyder and Capullo continued to excel themselves, with Capullo in particular doing some of his most jawdropping, ambitious work ever.  I’d marvel at the meticulous, beautiful construction of pages, or find myself smiling at the deft skill with which Snyder weaved in a character grace note or an unexpected turn in the narrative.  But still, for me it felt like one of the best creative teams working today magnificently executing a story I had no interest in reading.  And so, Batman #23 was the last chance I was giving the story to win me over.  Dropping Batman was unthinkable.  But I was at the very least considering taking a break for the “Zero Year” storyline and coming back once it was over.

Okay, so after near 1000 words of doom-and-gloom preamble, let’s get into the actual review of the comic itself, and this is where the negative turns positive.  As it was with this third chapter that everything clicked for me.  After being unable to see past the redundancy of retelling this origin story, it’s with this issue that I realise “Zero Year” has, in one way at least, managed to trump the mighty Batman Year One.  For, while that is an incredible Jim Gordon story, “Zero Year” has spent the first three issues carefully setting the stage for this to be a definitive Bruce Wayne story in a way that even Year One – which kept Wayne himself relatively elusive – couldn’t do.  James Tynion IV and Rafael Albuquerque’s backups hav be served their role here too, giving us glimpses at the ways Bruce has moulded himself physically.  But it falls to Snyder and Capullo to complete the metamorphosis, and show how a Bruce Wayne with all the individual component parts puts it all together to become the Batman we know and love.

The first two issues were careful place-setting, establishing Bruce Wayne himself and finding new wrinkles in his history – the thorny relationship with Alfred, the return of his Uncle, Philip Wayne – to establish him as a vital presence in the comic even before he dons the cowl, the way Nolan did with Christian Bale in Batman Begins.  But it’s with Batman #23 that it all pays off, the whole issue serving as an ode to Bruce, and a showcase for the final intangible qualities that will make him Batman: determination, resilience, and a touch of madness.  Escaping from a burning building and trekking across a city to Wayne Manor, after getting the hell beaten out of you, with two bullets in your gut, is an incredible feat, and Capullo really sells the struggle with his visuals: lots of tight, bonecrunching impact shots during the confrontation with the Red Hood, and lots of ominous long shots and aerial shots to really hammer home the sense of distance and isolation to make sure you feel every pained step Bruce takes.  And then there’s that crazy finale, an inspired new interpretation of the iconic, “Yes father, I shall become a bat” moment.  We’re all waiting for that line, we all know it’s coming.  But the build-up to it is bold and transformative, presented as the wild, psychadelic fever dream of a man suffering from a concussion.  Batman becomes something nightmarish, borne out of a place no level-headed man would go to.

Really, it’s G: reg Capullo who’s the dominant presence here.  With more of those immersive layouts and stunning splashes, you really get the feeling of Capullo pushing the envelope further and further, cementing his status as an auteur of comic art.  It’s not just the grand flourishes: it’s the little touches, like the way we can see the iconography of Batman gradually forming around Bruce.  There’s the fact that Wayne Towers looks like the silhouette of Batman, as has already been noted elsewhere.  And there’s also the closing silent image from when Alfred’s done patching Bruce up and Bruce is walking away, with his sweeping dressing gown looking eerily like Batman’s cape.  That page also gives us what could be the first glimpse of Batman’s naked butt, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Of course, I’ve always loved Capullo’s work on the book, but as I reread Batman #23, I found myself wondering what it was that was making his work have more impact on me than ever, to the point where I was thinking this could be his finest work on the title yet.  And then it hit me: the famed Batman first-person narration captions were nowhere to be found.  We’ve become so used to seeing those in Batman comics, that even when their absence isn’t immediately noted, it creates a very different vibe.  Especially when the missing narration would have been provided by a wordsmith as eloquent as Snyder.  With no such captions, a wealth of the captions here are silent, and it is Capullo who really shoulders the bulk of the storytelling.  And he more than rises to the challenge, giving us a visual narrative masterclass where every page is both a work of remarkable aesthetic beauty in itself and dense in narrative in a way that rewards multiple readings.

How do the rest of the art team perform in assisting Capullo here?  Very well, I’d say.  I’ve had a hard time warming to inker Danny Miki.  This is through no shortcomings of his, as his light touch has given the characters renewed spark and kinetic energy that makes them pop from the page.  But I can’t deny that I’ve missed Jonathan Glapion, who inked Greg Capullo’s pencils from Batman #1 right up to the “Death of the Family” conclusion.  So much of the ominous, horror-infused tone of the series came from Glapion’s rich, heavy linework and heavy blacks, giving everything this sense of weight and dread, picking up on and enhancing the odder, more uneasy aspects of Capullo’s stylised figure work.  But here, Danny Miki shifts from his more polished approach to apply some oddness of his own, with Capullo giving him more of an opportunity to relish in the gloomy and astmospheric than he’s had since joining the team.

And colorist FCO Plascencia continues to be one  of the most underappreciated geniuses working in comics.  I’ve been pleased to see colorists getting more acknowledgement of late, but Plascencia’s name has rarely been brought up in the conversations about what colorists bring to a book.  It should be, as from the very beginning, Plascencia’s skillfully-applied pallette has given the book an aesthetic all its own.  He’s not a flat colorist.  Everything he colors feels textured, like it has mass and depth.  I think he handles skin particularly well, in a way that has really helped Capullo’s distinctive faces leap from the page.  Here, Plascencia gets a big-time showcase, as he establishes a color scheme for each of the two narrative strands running through the book.  In the attack on Bruce’s penthouse apartment, it all feels very hot: lots of oranges, yellows, and red (The Red Hood, the recurring imagery of pooling blood), and as the fire blazes Plascencia bathes the characters in a swelteringly convincing depiction of the heat.  In the aftermath, both as Bruce struggles his way back to Wayne Manor and dwells in the mansion afterwards, Plascencia goes cold: lots of blues and grays.  As the book jumps back and forth from one strand to the other, often on the same page, the colors become a shorthand for not only the change in scene, but for Bruce himself.  Gotham and its criminal element are red: panic, terror, chaos and Bruce is in danger of being consumed by it.  Bruce Wayne is blue: calm, cool. a force of order to rise against the chaos.  And the first image of the book is a young, blue-tinged Bruce set against a blood-red circle.

Of course, I feel obligated to point out that Scott Snyder has hardly taken a vacation and left the artists to do all the heavy lifting.  He too has a place to shine, and for him it’s in the showcases given to our two villains.  First, The Red Hood, who at this point we are to assume is a prototypical Joker.  He is granted a great monologue about how the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne shaped him as much as it did Bruce: “Because at the end of day (I think that should be end of the day, but it would appear letterer Nick Napolitano made a typo), what people are afraid of is the nothing of it, Bruce.  The randomness. The empty center.  Stare into it and try to find meaning.  You’ll go mad.  All you can do is fear, and survive.”  Even now that his run is done, it would appear that Grant Morrison’s “hole in things” continues to haunt the Batman mythos.

Later on we get another delightful scene with Edward Nygma, who has been a standout character throughout this storyline thus far.  Between this, and the fantastic Riddler Villains’ Month oneshot from last week, The Riddler is emerging as one of my favourite characters in the New 52 Batverse.  Here, we get our first glimpse at vulnerability from the ice-cool master planner, as Philip Wayne taunts him with his one weakness: that because of his shady, undisclosed past, he must always operate under his alias, and so he can never truly take the credit for his works of genius.  With both The Red Hood and Edward Nygma, we get this great sense of them being primal ideas waiting to be born: the ingredients for The Joker and The Riddler are in there, but they need that spark of Batman coming into existence for the touch-paper to light and for them to emerge from the dark in response.

So, where does all that leave us?  I had my misgivings about “Zero Year”, and to a degree I still do.  But this underlines the power of a fantastic creative team firing on all cylinders.  It’s almost easy to make a great comic out of a surefire, can’t-miss high concept.  But to take something as contentious and divisive as this, and make something incredible out of it?  That’s an achievement.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are absolute MVPs that DC should be doing everything in their power to keep on Batman forever, with the freedom to tell whatever stories with Batman they want.  Will the next chapter build on this momentum, and will “Zero Year” as a whole emerge as a resounding success that can stand proudly alongside Year One without appearing sorely lacking in comparison?  Or in the end will Batman #23 prove to be a stunning single artefact in an unremarkable larger narrative?  I’m not sure, but Batman #23 sealed the deal for me, and made sure I’m onboard to the end to see for myself.  I’m glad I gave these guys the benefit of the doubt.

Batman23Batman #23 is out in comic shops now.

REVIEW: American Vampire #33

I sometimes feel that American Vampire doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves.  Oh, it’s hardly some criminally overlooked obscurity, given that the series has enjoyed critical acclaim and awards, and the graphic novels are regularly on best-seller lists.  But still, it seems to fly under the radar.  Amidst the undeniable ascension of Image over the course of this year and its wealth of exciting new projects, I’ve seen many talk about how “this is what Vertigo USED to be like” or “it’s a shame Vertigo don’t make great books like this any more,” and I want to bludgeon them to death with an American Vampire hardcover.  How can Vertigo’s best days be behind them when one of their best new titles in years is still ongoing?  Not that I’m immune either.  I write a lot about how excellent Scott Snyder’s Batman run has been, and from time to time I’ll comment on the virtues of his Swamp Thing, but how often do I acknowledge the brilliance of the Scott Snyder comic I was reading before any of these others?  Perhaps it’s because American Vampire is so consistently strong that we’ve begun to take it for granted.  If that is indeed the case, American Vampire #33 should be the remedy for that, presenting a climactic issue that foregrounds the full dramatic weight of the series thus far.

To give you a quick “story thus far” rundown of “The Blacklist”, the major storyline which comes to its thrilling conclusion in this issue, it has featured our vampire protagonist Pearl Jones teaming up with her old enemy, the inscrutable anti-hero Skinner Sweet, to take out the vampires responsible for attacking her human husband, the aging Henry.  Things took a shocking swerve a couple of issues back when the Big Bad behind this newly-invigorated Carpathian coven turned out to be none other than Hattie Hargrove, the villainess from the comic’s first ever storyline who has been lingering behind the scenes ever since, waiting to spring back into the story like Chekov’s Gun.  Last issue left us hanging with the revelation that Hattie sought to take a very personal vengeance on Pearl, with Henry’s life once more hanging in the balance.  Which brings us screaming into this issue.  With so much coming to a head – not just Pearl’s long-simmering bloodfeuds with Skinner Sweet and Hattie Hargrove, but the hanging question of whether Pearl would turn Henry into a vampire like her or if their days together were numbered – and a return to the Hollywood location of the beginning of the series (not to mention largely cutting everything back to focus on the characters who were players in that first storyline), this feels like the climax of not just “The Blacklist”, but the entirety of American Vampire up until now.  And boy does it deliver.

As is always the case when reading a new issue of American Vampire, the first impression the reader gets here is how utterly awe-inspiring the art of Rafael Albuquerque continues to be.  Since the very first issue, American Vampre has been one of the best-looking comics on the stands, and this issue is no exception.  A great test for how well an artist is doing their job is to look through the issue without reading any of the dialogue, and see not only how much of the story you can follow without the words, but how much of the emotion, and how much of the characters’ personality, is deliniated by the artwork.  Albuquerque excels on this front.  In particular I love his depiction of Hattie.  Snyder gifts her with some deliciously nasty dialogue, but just look how much personality Albuquerque gives her, that glint of pure malevolence in her eye.  Albuquerque handles eyes better than just about anyone: you’d be surprised how hard it is to capture a glint of emotion in something drawn in pencil and ink, but Albuquerque’s characters are gloriously expressive, doing fantastic “acting” that really helps to hammer home the ideas in Snyder’s script.

And this brings us to another of Albuquerque’s atributes: just howdiverse he is.  This issue is just about equally divided between frenetic action and quiet emotional moments, and both are handled seamlessly.  You could write a study on the way Albuquerque frames his pages, how in action scenes he has panels overlapping while other explode from their border and positions the “camera” either claustrophobically close at askew angles to create this sense of being in the thick of the battle, and then how in the more dramatic scenes he might pull the “camera” back to enhance a character’s sense of isolation.  This emotional shift is also aided immensely by colorist extraordinaire Dave McCaig, perhaps the unsung hero of American Vampire.  Look at how the issue’s color pallette shifts from orange to blue as we transition from one phase of the chapter to another.

That’s a lot of gushing about how fantastic the art of American Vampire is, and when a comic looks this lovely it can be easy to overlook the writing.  It’s a good thing then that Scott Snyder’s writing more than holds its own.  I think Snyder does a commendable job of slipping strong characterisation into the ambitious, high-concept, plot-driven narratives of Batman and Swamp Thing – there’s an emerging argument to be made that his whole run on Batman thus far is a character study on Batman’s hubris coming back to haunt him in various ways – but I would venture to say that American Vampire and its tie-ins are his most character-driven works, where the most central stakes usually seem to be emotional ones.  Tellingly, the big battle set up in the previous issue is over by a little over halfway through, and it’s the emotional fallout that serves as the arc’s true climax.  Over the course of 30+ issues, we’ve really come to know and relate to Pearl, and Henry, and even Skinner.  And Snyder cruelly exploits that intimacy he has generated here, as the storyline comes to its heartbreaking, yet ultimately inevitable conclusion.

Pearl’s characterisation is illustrated to us two-fold here.  First, through the portrayal of Pearl herself, haunted, driven, and more compassionately human than many humans.  But also through the depiction of Hattie, who in many ways is a funhouse-mirror image of “Old Pearl”, the wannabe Hollywood starlet.  Pearl, though physically the same, has grown and matured so much in the decades since that first storyline, going through the darkness and emerging on the other side stronger and better for it, much as she might be loathe to admit that herself.  Hattie, however, is presented to us as stuck in arrested development, forever dwelling on the old grudges and dreams she had back in the 1920s, a representation of Pearl’s old naive optimism rotted on the vine and turned into festering resentment and inflated entitlement.  In Hattie, we see everything that Pearl is not, and so it is underlined just how much Pearl has changed over the course of the series.

Henry’s role is smaller here, but in what we get of him he demonstrates to us the warmth and nobility that have made us buy so wholeheartedly into this relationship, even as vampire/human love stories make us roll our eyes elsewhere.  Skinner Sweet, meanwhile, remains one step ahead of the rest of us, his motives continually muddy.  Snyder continues to masterfully maintain a balance act of having us be never quite sure when Skinner Sweet is lying, even to himself.  By all accounts he’s a horrid character that we should detest, but buried deep down that spark of heroism still seems to flicker away almost in spite of itself.  I still don’t have a clue if Skinner Sweet will be seen as the hero or the villain of the series, once it’s all said and done.

“Once it’s all said and done.”  That brings us to the question of what lies next.  It’s no secret that after the next issue, American Vampire will be going on a hiatus of several months, marking what we are told is roughly the halfway point of the series.  Really, if this issue here had been the end of the series (thankfully it isn’t, and there’s more to come!), it would have made for a satisfying conclusion.  As addressed earlier, everything comes full circle, and some of the biggest storylines running through the series thus far come to a head.  If we weren’t getting any more issues after this, you could argue that Pearl, Henry and Skinner got fitting send-offs.  Indeed, so much is satisfyingly wrapped up, that I’m genuinely curious to see where things could go next, and how this can truly only be the halfway point in the saga.  I imagine the next issue will do the job of setting up what lies ahead.

I might have an idea already, though.  See, I’ve thought quite a bit about the trajectory of American Vampire, and originally I considered that this vampire story was being set against the backdrop of the history of 20th Century America.  But “The Blacklist”, with all its references to Hollywood, has gotten me thinking that, more specifically, this vampire story is being set against the backdrop of the history of American cinema.  Those early Stephen King backups were, obviously, a Western.  The original arc that ran alongside them was, in its perverse way, an ode to the early studio films of the Hollywood Golden Age, the sweeping, epic romances of the likes of Cecil B. Demille and the grand emotion of silent cinema.  “Devil in the Sand” channels film noir.  “Ghost War” is, of course, a war movie, albeit one with a vampiric twist.  “Death Race” plays like a crazed pastiche of Rebel Without a Cause and similar “teen pictures” of the 1950s.  And “The Blacklist” seems to owe something to the spy pictures that came into vogue in the 1960s.  Is it really a coincidence that we enter into this hiatus, the first “phase” of the series coming to a close, at a point in the timeline where the studio system was done and “New Hollywood” was on the rise?  As the 1970s saw the rise of the anti-hero in cinema and murkier, more psychological narratives, are we going to see American Vampire take a similar dark turn?  Now that the grand Hollywood romance is over, what new genres wait to be explored through the American Vampire looking glass?

During the hiatus, I think I might try a marathon readthrough of all 33 issues, see how this saga reads as a whole.  And if you don’t read American Vampire, if you say you’re a Scott Snyder fan but just stick to his Batman, now is the time to amend that and play catch-up.  I don’t know what lies ahead for this cracking series.  But I can’t wait to find out.

REVIEW: Batman #14

REVIEW: Batman #14

You may have noticed that I haven’t reviewed Batman in a while.  To be honest, there’s only so much hyperbole you can heap on a title that is so consistently excellent, and it’s pretty difficult to find new ways of saying how incredible the work Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and the rest of the creative team are doing has been.  But just when we may have felt that this title may have hit a plateau of dependable quality each passing month, this “Death of the Family” arc started with Batman #13 and blasted the roof off our already high expectations.  With that issue, Snyder brought The Joker back in style and restored him as a genuinely terrifying presence.  That chapter caused something of a sensation, selling out everywhere very quickly and perhaps leaving some wondering if subsequent installments could possibly maintain that dizzying level of tension and mastery of storytelling.

Now we have Batman #14, and not onlydoes it live up to the horrific promise of Batman #13, it’s actually better, challenging even the mighty Batman #5 as perhaps the best chapter of this already-classic run.

Here’s the thing about The Joker.  Yes, undoubtedly, he’s a beloved, revered villain, and it’s not like he hasn’t been treated with respect in recent years: Grant Morrison and Paul Dini have given us some cracking Joker tales in the past decade.  But it seems that, more often than not, for quite a while now when The Joker has shown up in a major storyline, it’s been to act as a spoiler, a spanner in the works that complicates things between Batman and the primary antagonist of the story.  It seems like it’s been ages since The Joker has taken centre-stage in an epic arc of his own.  Well, The Joker’s time is now, and one of the best things Snyder does this issue is hammer home just how serious a threat The Joker is, what sets him apart from your typical street-level psycho supervillain, and the frightening scale on which he can operate.  Some might have been dubious about all the Bat-family “Death of the Family” tie-ins, but based on the strength of his portrayal here, you can totally understand how The Joker could be a threat big enough for all these characters to have their hands full with him, and indeed it would feel like something was deeply wrong if the ripples of the shocking revelations in Batman weren’t felt in the rest of the Bat-line.

As far as the actual characterisation of The Joker goes, Scott Snyder clearly has a ball writing the master villain.  While he doesn’t by any means show his whole hand at this early stage of what is sure to be a labyrinthine plot, Snyder does give us a substantial taste of The Joker’s modus operandi, how he views his place in the universe and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  It’s stuff we’ve heard before, as Snyder has enthralled us with his insights into The Joker in various interviews and panel appearances, but seeing those fascinatingly acute observations worked into the script and spoken back out to us in The Joker’s voice makes it still feel fresh and exciting.  The Joker has been given a rythmn of speaking unlike anyone else in the cast: with all his talk of being the court jester to Batman’s “god-king”, his manner of speaking almost feels like that of a Shakespearean fool, all tantalising double meanings, coy foreshadowings and escalating repetitions.  In the silent medium of comics, Snyder has crafted a cadence for his villain’s voice, which is no mean feat.  Letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt also deserve credit here, with The Joker even getting his own lettering font to heighten this sense of him having his own unique voice.

The unconventional, unsettling nature of The Joker’s presence is compounded by Greg Capullo’s art.  His body language is all uncomfortable backwards arches and unnatural contortions, Capullo’s Joker cutting a shifting, fidgity figure.  Even in how he stands, The Joker is set apart from everyone else on the page.  Though Capullo’s most obvious contribution is surely The Joker’s new face.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of The Joker wearing his severed face like a mask.  It seemed a bit too torture-porn gorefest, a bit too grubby and heavy-handed for a villain as classy as The Clown Prince of Crime.  But Capullo makes it work, with The Joker’s loose, flaccid face-skin wrinkling and folding into slightly different positions in each passing panel.  Much like the nature of The Joker’s masterplan, it allows The Joker to be simultaneously familiar, and yet inherently, chillingly different.  And while I’m talking about Capullo’s art, how can I not mention that stunning splash page with The Joker and Batman facing each other on the bridge.  If there was a comic page I immediately wanted to have on my wall…

But as great as all this juicy material with my favourite comic book villain was, it wasn’t what made Batman #14 possibly the best of the series thus far.  When he shows up, he’s utterly compelling, but The Joker doesn’t show up until 15 pages into the story.  I was expecting great characterisation of The Joker here.  What took me by surprise is how great a character study of Batman this is.  Seeing Batman starting to come apart at the seams with the abduction of Alfred is quite harrowing to watch.  And, as has become something of a recurring trend in Snyder’s run, Batman is able to reveal most of his inner turmoil while in conversation with Nightwing.  Batman struggling to compartmentalise, referring to Bruce Wayne in the first person and Alfred as “Pennyworth” – as if he was someone else’s butler, and didn’t know him personally – and Nightwing’s exasperation with Batman’s enforced detachment, was just some great character dynamics.

And when Batman finally lets the mask slip, I found it really powerful when he talked about Alfred being a father to him.  I’m glad Snyder went there, and hope he makes more of that in future.  To me, that’s been one of the great, unspoken tragedies of the Batman mythos.  Bruce Wayne has been driven his whole life by this need to avenge the death of his parents, and goes through such prolonged anguish over how he’s an orphan, over how he has no father.  And all this time, while living in this almost self-indulgent misery, he’s been quietly cared for by a man who is arguably more of a father to Bruce than his actual biological father ever was, who certainly at the very least has been caring for Bruce longer than his real father did.  Poor Alfred.

The back-up, with art by Jock, is also a treat.  We see The Joker interacting with The Penguin, two very different villains who, according to The Joker, at least, each have their own crucial role in the Gotham tapestry.  With the ominous note this short interlude ends on, combined with the bombshells dropped at the conclusion of the main story, that brings us to one of the most exciting aspects of this bar-raising issue: that it’s still mostly set up for things to get even crazier in future chapters!

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, colorist FCO Plascencia and letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt are arguably the best creative team working in comics today (off the top of my head, only the Brian K Vaughan/Fiona Staples/Fonografiks dream team on Saga jumps to mind as a possible challenger for that crown), and so you’d think it could be easy to just take their combined excellence for granted.  But just like Batman has had the rug pulled out from under him just when he thinks he knows what to expect from The Joker, with “Death of the Family”, these guys just refuse to let us get comfortable with our expectations.  Sometimes, with big stories like this, it’s like going from point A to point B, with point B already solicited well in advance, and so it’s just a case of sitting back and watching how it happens.  Not the case here.  This story has driven off a cliff.  We have a monthly Big Two superhero comic that feels genuinely dangerous, a Batman story with a sense of bona fide “anything could happen and I don’t know how things can ever be normal again!” drama not felt since Batman RIP.

Batman #14 is out now in comic stores everywhere.

REVIEW: Batman #9

The cover of Batman #9 says a lot.  It’s a reverse of the cover for Batman #4, where the Talon’s head loomed menacingly over the Gotham City skyline, Batman reflected in his goggles.  That image aptly reflected the power dynamic within the issue, with Batman vulnerable, the object of a predator’s gaze.  Here, that dynamic is reversed, both on the cover and in the issue.  We see Batman’s armour now hovering over Wayne Manor, with the cluster of Talons reflected in its visor.  Now, Batman is the predator, and the Court of Owls is his prey.

Snyder delivers a fun, action-packed issue, but as we approach the climax of this storyline, I can’t help but feel that it’s not quite so gripping as the buildup, and that this shifting dynamic could be the reason.  This is soething of a recurring problem in the comics world, and Batman in particular it would seem, given the high volume of quality work surrounding the character.  In the early stages of the story, we are introduced to a seemingly unbeatable threat, and there’s a real air of menace, a sense of legitimate threat to Batman, that this is an enemy he cannot defeat.  We’re drawn in, and think we’re in a bleak noir/crime epic, or even a horror story.  And we almost forget that it’s a superhero story.  But of course, at the end of the day Batman still is a superhero, and that’s a big part of why we love him.  So of course, once we get to the end, that unstoppable, chilling foe ends up as just another villain to be battled and defeated, as the superhero mechanics start to kick in on the narrative.  This largely unavoidable plot beat has proved troublesome for other Batman stories in the past: the mostly excellent City of Crime springs to mind.  Grant Morrison escaped the pitfall by emphasizing it at the climax of Batman RIP and giving us a comeback/”I was just letting you think you’d beat me” switcheroo of epic proportions, and celebrating just how badass and unstoppable Batman is.  And perhaps that was a problem built into the very concept of the Court of Owls: that they followed the Black Glove, and ultimately Batman saw those guys off with little bother.

As I’ve said before, though, something that gave the Court of Owls that added layer of dread beyond the Black Glove was that they weren’t dastardly outsiders come to attack Gotham, they are Gotham.  But though they still make for compelling villains, Snyder does not seem to have been able to subvert that recurring dynamic, not yet at least.  The Talon was creepy when he was a silent mystery figure, stalking from the shadows and bafflingly unkillable.  And the Court of Owls thesmelves were even more unsettling, in that they were intangible, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  So, when the Talon gives way to an army of Talons, fought and dispatched with relative ease, their nature scientifically explained and exploited as a weakness?  Or when the Court of Owls is reduced to a piece of paper with a list of names, presumably of corrupt officials at a secret lair waiting to be uncovered by Batman?  It makes them knowable, and therefore less frightening.  It’s a problem that often crops up in horror sequels.  Now they’re just villains to be fought and defeated.

However, having said all that, do we really want it any other way?  The appeal of “Batman in grave danger with no hope of escape” followed by “Batman finds a way to overcome adversity and beat the bad guys” has been built into the character as far back as the old Adam West TV series and its “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel” cliffhangers.  Batman’s been put through the wringer in this arc, and now that he gets to turn the tables on the Court of Owls, that’s quite cathartic.  And seeing how even the most seemingly formidable foes are no match for Batman in the end, well, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?  After all, as Bruce Wayne said long ago, and has been proven right time and time again, “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.”

I’ve done my critique of genre narrative conventions largely outwith Snyder’s control, but in the actual execution of the issue itself, Snyder’s storytelling was as pristine as ever.  I loved the thematically appropriate narration about the incredible durability of bats when their habitat is invaded by owls, and there are a couple of nice beats, including the shock twist that Lincoln March is actually the nice guy he appears to be rather than a shock twist baddie.  But ultimately, this issue is a showcase for the artists.

Greg Capullo has garnered a lot of praise for his dark, atmospheric, character-driven work on Batman thus far, but here he gets to cut loose with some of the most high-octane action I’ve seen portrayed in a comic in a good while.  From the epic splash of the Batcave’s dinosaur finally revealing its purpose, to smaller moments like the Talon’s blade piercing the visor of Batman’s armour and almost poking out his eye, this is an issue crammed with incident, and Capullo frames everything in a way that it feels frantic and intense, but at the same time every little moment is clearly portrayed, nothing is muddy or inprecise.  And mention should also be made of the inker/colorist pairing of Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia, who do an impressive job of having night gradually give way to morning over the course of the issue’s latter half.  Though we never see the actual sunrise itself, the light it casts on Batman – normally shrouded in shadow and night – makes for quite the potent closing image.

But perhaps what excited me the most this issue was that Rafael Albuquerque – Snyder’s artistic collaborator on American Vampire – was coming onboard to work on the backup feature, “The Fall of the House of Wayne.”  I don’t know what to make of the story itself – co-written by James Tynion IV – as while it was well-scripted, it raised a couple of ropey continuity questions that the geek in me has to ponder further.  The art, however, is stunning, as we have come to expect from Albuquerque, who in my mind is reaching that “comic art rock star” status.  Even American Vampire colorist Dave McCaig is along for the ride, and together they give us some moody, atmospheric work recalling the visual splendour that first made me fall in love with American Vampire.

Any complaints I have about Batman #9 are slight, and probably stm more from me reading too many comics than any substantial forthcomings of the actual creative talent involved.  But still, I didn’t enjoy this quite so much as the best issues of this run thus far.  But I’m still hoping that Snyder, Capullo and co blow us away with the finale.

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: Swamp Thing #6

Oops, I’ve been getting a bit behind on reviewing Swamp Thing, haven’t I?  The last issue I reviewed was #3, but I’ve still been reading and the comic has still been excellent in those intervening months.  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?  When you’ve said a comic is amazing, 10/10, one of the best on the shelves right now, writing is great, art is great… what else do you say?

Let’s start by dealing with the elephant in the room.  No, Yanick Paquette did not draw this issue, though he did provide the cover, one of the most beautiful to grace this series yet.  In his place is Marco Rudy.  We’ll get it out of the way: no, Marco Rudy’s art is not as stunning as Yanick Paquette.  But Rudy is a very gifted artist in his own right, and makes a game attempt at crafting some adventurous, intricate panel layouts reminiscent of what has quickly become a Paquette trademark.  And he gets some great stuff to work with.  Bodies being sucked into tumorous flesh pits and transformed into Gigeresque monstrosities, warped mutant vultures, towers built from corpses, and young William Arcane apparently rotting gradually from the inside.

But while it looks good, it still feels different, which is a shame, as Swamp Thing has very quickly established a distinct aesthetic.  Part of the problem could be that Marco Rudy’s admirable efforts to channel the spirit of Paquette in his work are somewhat undermined by the loss of colorist Nathan Fairbairn.  Fairbairn’s rich, textured colors masterfully made the transition between Paquette and fill-in artist Victor Ibanez all but seamless in Swamp Thing #3.  But the sharper colors of Val Staples and Lee Loughridge make the change more jarring on this occasion.

Thankfully, one thing that remains utterly consistent is the writing of Scott Snyder.  In fact, this could be one of the strongest-written issues of the series thus far.  It’s impressive that, in a title called Swamp Thing, Snyder has now held off on actually giving us Swamp Thing for six months.  Back in my review of issue #3, I talked about getting a little antsy, wondering how long they could keep this up.  As it turns out, it was the right decision.  By putting the time into firmly establishing Alec Holland, Snyder has ensured I have connected with the character of Alec as a human being, which I’m sure will be an invaluable tether once he turns into that familiar big, green plant-monster and starts smashing stuff up.  His arc takes a really interesting direction this issue.  Before, I talked about Alec Holland coming across as a Jonah figure, shirking his duties.  Here, we get a particularly powerful moment, with Alec wading into the swamp, begging to be made into Swamp Thing again, finally accepting his destiny… only now its too late.

Particularly strong is the depiction of the relationship between Alec and Abby Arcane.  Alan Moore’s overarching saga was ultimately a love story, arguably one of the greatest love stories in comic history.  And I’m glad that remains at the core of the book now, with an added “star-crossed” element to it that makes it all the more poignant and bittersweet.  It should be fascinating to see what twists their journey takes in the issues to come, with Abby possibly being reinvented as a dangerous threat, as vital to the Rot as Alec is to the Green.

On this note, the foreshadowing of this idea was handled brilliantly in the monologue by William Arcane.  I was a bit dubious about a little kid being able to deliver so eloquent an evil speech, but he’s a demon child, so I’ll roll with it.  This sequence once again worked in Snyder’s talent for being able to approach obscure trivia at a terrifying angle.  And the imagery juxtaposed with it was suitably grim.  Swamp Thing started out with a strong horror vibe, but as the narrative has carried on, we’ve just been dragged deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.  As it stands, the situation looks impossibly bleak for our protagonist.  And that’s before that last page…

DC has ensured that the first Wednesday of the month is always a treat for me, with the one-two punch of Swamp Thing and Animal Man ensuring quality reading.  I felt a little premature heaping hyperbole on Swamp Thing in its first couple of issues, but we’ve now accumulated nearly a trade’s worth of material – I believe next month’s Swamp Thing #7 will be the last chapter of the first collected edition – so I can now say with confidence that Snyder and his artistic collaborators are giving us the best Swamp Thing story since the Moore era, and a tale that can stand respectably alongside Moore’s masterpiece.