Revision Guide Required? – Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1

Of the ‘big three’ DC superheroes, Wonder Woman’s origin is by far the most fluid, contentious and contradictory. Whereas Batman’s and Superman’s are both more or less set in stone and well known to even the most casual of comic reader, Wonder Woman’s is, it seems, perennially up for grabs, a prime target for the whims and agendas of a host of writers. So, when fan favourite Greg Rucka returns to the book after two (although for very different reasons) controversial New 52 runs from Brian Azzarello and Meredith Finch, is it too much to ask that he leaves the whole notion of Wonder Woman’s backstory alone?

What do you think?

Wonder Woman - Rebirth (2016) 001-000The issue starts by highlighting the two main contradictory versions of Wonder Woman’s origin. Either she is made of clay – a gift of the gods to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, given life by supernatural forces – or the result of a union between Hippolyta and a disguised Zeus and, in that sense, no different from any of the other many demi-gods of Greek mythology. The first origin reflects the Judaeo-Christian creation story and highlights how much Diana was wanted by her mother; the second is arguably rooted in deception and lust, and emphasises Diana’s heroic status, putting her on a par with Heracles, Perseus and a host of other heroes who claim Zeus’ paternity. The more perceptive of you will have noticed that I’m more a fan of the first origin, but I should point out that what I’ve read of the Azzarello run (about 20 issues) I’ve enjoyed immensely. Having made his choice about Diana’s origin, Azzarello explores it to its full potential, crafting a very entertaining set of stories out of the resulting collision of the world of 21st century (post)modernity and the world of ancient gods.

It’s clear, however, that Rucka has his own ideas about which origin should be favoured; arguably the very fact that he’s even asking the question in the first place indicates that he’s not especially enamoured of the New 52 run. Instead of resolving this fundamental contradiction immediately, however, Rucka chooses to make it the subject of his narrative. He has Wonder Woman question herself, question her memories, her origin, her past and her heritage. She questions how she is perceived by “man’s world” (a phrase that is problematic in its own right) and this culminates in her submitting herself to her own lasso of truth test in which she articulates what her subconscious had been telling her all this time. “You have been deceived.” This comes just after she has taken the ‘helmet of the God of War’ and crushed it in her hands, symbolically devaluing the Finch run in the process. While no one will shed too many tears about that, it is nevertheless a disconcerting moment, not only for Wonder Woman, but also for the reader. The question of just how much of what went on in the New 52 run is going to survive into this is raised and it seems the answer might well be “Not an awful lot.”

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There’s seven years of bad luck right there. Rucka’s not going to be on this book for seven years, is he? Is he?

This section ends with Diana punching a mirror in a rather impressive (almost) double page spread, each shard reflecting a moment that has been called into question. These include the relationship with Superman (which I really won’t miss), a battle with the Cheetah, the JL fighting parademons and Diana cradling her mother in her arms. There then follows a page in which Diana questions where her story “went wrong” (a loaded question for any storyteller working in a shared universe to have a character ask, particularly when said storyteller has written the character before) and decides to ‘retrace her steps’ to find out. As she does so, she divests herself of key items of her costume – the tiara and the WW choker, both of which are associated closely with the New 52 run. She turns her attention back to the battered helmet of the god of war and…

Everything changes.

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This is lovely. Just… lovely. Really, really lovely.

Up until this point, we’ve been enjoying artwork from Matthew Clark and Sean Parsons and very nice it’s been, too. The lines have been light and clean and Wonder Woman herself has looked pretty impressive and dynamic. Now, we are treated to six pages from Liam Sharp who will be one of the regular artists on the book. The lines become heavier; the colouring darker. Her armour becomes more detailed. There is a muted sombre quality to the art now and it is gorgeous. Wonder Woman doesn’t waste any time and travels to Olympus using the battered helmet as a focus. What greets her there is an autumnal world of faded elegance and stately ruin. The sky is a sumptuous wine-red, and buildings and statues are wreathed in ancient vines. More worryingly for Diana, the gods are entirely absent. Only the statues remain who turn out to be mindless automatons left by Hephaestus to protect this faded Olympus. Wonder Woman dispatches them in a handful of stylish, beautifully rendered panels and is left with the conclusion that “this lie” is “afraid” of her and this is “not Olympus”. All very portentous. All very dramatic. All very vague.

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The level of detail, the atmosphere, the leaves fluttering in the wind… Just. Awesome.

As befits a Rebirth issue, the reader is left with plenty of questions. Where have the real gods gone? Who is powerful enough to erect a fake Olympus in place of the real one? Who is responsible for the deception that has been worked on Diana? Exactly what is true and what is false? How will this affect Diana going forward?

It’s too early for answers, but what we do know is that Rucka is confident enough in what he’s doing to play a long game and I suspect there’ll be many more questions before we start getting answers. Some would perhaps argue that the entire issue is simply an exercise in professional discourtesy. I’m not convinced myself. Personally, I’d contend that, as a writer whose first run on the book was both critically and commercially successful, Rucka’s earned the right to engage in a bit of revisionism. Whether he’s wise to do so remains to be seen. There’s enough here, however, to intrigue and impress this reader at least.

As Rebirth issues go, then, this is not bad at all. Even when he’s being elliptical, Rucka’s writing is very good (the line about the “first casualty of war” being the truth is nicely played). The artwork of both Clark and Sharp is also good, with Sharp’s being, at times, breathtakingly beautiful. I do have reservations, though. I care about the character of Wonder Woman a great deal and do worry that, if the book gets bogged down in a series of character ‘corrections’, the opportunity for Wonder Woman to reassert herself as a powerful superhero in her own right might be lost. I don’t especially want to see Diana constantly conflicted and unsure of her own identity. I want to see her saving the world, fighting evil and injustice, and generally being awesome. Hopefully that’s where Rucka is taking us. Time, as always, will tell…

Here Is The News…

This is just a quick update to let you know that I’ve had a review published on the rather wonderful Weird Science DC Comics website and hopefully this’ll be a regular (or semi-regular) thing. The review is of Dark Horse’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and can be found on the Weird Science website here and on this site here. Wherever you choose to read it, check it out. I will just say, mind, that the Weird Science website has a ton of great reviews. Although their main focus is DC, they do carry reviews of books from other comic companies including Marvel and those reviews are fair, clear and very entertaining. In addition to their reviews, their DC Comics Podcast is required listening for anyone interested in comprehensive and insightful reviews of DC books. Just don’t expect brevity. 🙂

Another website I’m really enjoying is Chris Sheehan’s Chris Is On Infinite Earths. Chris is one half of the Cosmic Treadmill podcast and, as well as being a knowledgeable and articulate guide to comics past and present, is a very nice guy to boot. How do I know this? Because he recently opened his site up to reader suggestions and one of mine was the first one he picked. For his insightful take on Legion of Superheroes #28, check out his review here. It’s an excellent read and typical of Chris’ approach. Chris manages to review an issue a day which, to be honest, is an output of which I’m genuinely envious. Again, his website is well worth a look – as, for that matter, is the Cosmic Treadmill podcast, in which Chris and co-host Reggie Hemingway look at a single issue from comics history, provide a summary, review and, invariably, some fascinating contextual information.

The WildstormAs for me, I’ll try to keep this blog updated a bit more regularly over the next few weeks. I’ve got reviews in the pipeline for the new Spirit series, the new Vampirella series and, possibly, some comics in translation. Stay tuned for that and, if you’re looking for something to pass a few minutes with, you could do a lot worse than the new The Wildstorm series from DC. Warren Ellis is writing; Jon Davis-Hunt is on art. It’s a thoughtful, intriguing take on the WildStorm universe and I’m rather excited to see where it goes.

American Gods: Shadows Issue 1 (Dark Horse)

pdf0First published in 2001, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is long overdue for a comic adaptation. Presumably spurred by the imminent appearance of a TV adaptation, Dark Horse has decided to release an adaptation across 27 issues constituting 3 distinct story arcs with veteran comics creator P Craig Russell as adapter and co-writer and with Scott Hampton (and, briefly, Lovern Kindzierski) on art. So, does the first issue of American Gods: Shadows succeed in hooking this comics reader (who hasn’t read the novel!)? Let’s find out…

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

American Gods: Shadows issue 1 comes, as might be expected, with a variety of covers. The standard one is a rather tasty bit of Glenn Fabry art featuring a minotaur character who only briefly appears in the comic. My favourite, though, is the David Mack cover which is more impressionistic and more accurately reflects the slow, thoughtful, atmospheric narrative. (If you’re hankering for something more Sandman-esque and disturbing, though, the Dave McKean cover is probably going to be your bag.)

The story itself introduces the character of Shadow (if you’re writing a tale that is rooted in mythic notions of gods, worship and the supernatural, you might as well go the whole hog and give your main character a name positively brimming over with portentous ambiguity), who, when the story starts, is serving time in a decidedly British-looking prison for, we find out later, aggravated robbery. He is presented as a thoughtful – almost philosophical – man who attempts to stay removed from the kind of violence and pettiness popularized in countless low-budget prison movies over the last few decades. Instead, he works out, practices coin tricks and occasionally has interesting conversations with the improbably-named Low Key Lyesmith, a bearded chap who looks like he should be running the House of Secrets rather than serving time. Despite the fact that Shadow is nearing release and an idyllic reunion with his wife and best friend (I have my suspicions about them, incidentally), he can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong.

And, of course, it duly does. A couple of days before his release date he is informed that his wife and best friend have died in a car accident and he’ll be released early as a result. An understandably numb Shadow endures a circuitous journey back home, but he gets off the plane early largely to get away from the dapperly-dressed but strangely knowledgeable Mr Wednesday with whom he’s been sharing the plane flight. Mr Wednesday has, during the course of their conversation, offered him a job, the details of which are worryingly vague. On leaving the airport, Shadow heads to the nearest diner only to again encounter Mr Wednesday (who should still be on the plane flying north at this point) in the rest room and, again, Mr Wednesday offers him the job. And there we leave Shadow, although the comic continues for another four pages, more of which in a moment.

At this point, the comic is… pretty good. Scott Hampton’s art, the occasional slightly off facial expression notwithstanding, is generally great, although it’s worth pointing out that both it and P Craig Russell’s layouts may appear exceptionally conservative if you’re more used to the action-orientated art of your average big two superhero book. The narrative pace is decidedly slow and deliberate. This comic is in no particular hurry to tell its story and, while that doesn’t necessarily have to be a drawback, here it presents some difficulties. Shadow is too taciturn and self-contained a character to be someone with whom the reader can instantly identify. He’s interesting up to a point, but hardly charismatic. That the other characters around him during the prison sequences never really rise above the level of foil or caricature only adds to the sense of remoteness. Some of the dialogue between Shadow and Lyresmith is witty, for example, but that doesn’t particularly translate into warmth. Shadow’s reaction to the news of his wife’s death is so muted as to be almost non-existent, which makes it even more difficult to feel sympathy for him. It’s noticeable that it’s only when Mr Wednesday appears, that Shadow comes alive. Gaiman and Russell do build up a real sense of intrigue about Wednesday and his reappearance in the rest room of the diner is foreshadowed beautifully and handled well.

Whether there’s enough here to hook the reader thoroughly remains to be seen. We get plenty of hints throughout the issue of a wider supernatural plot, not least the character of Wednesday himself, but the focus is squarely on providing the reader with Shadow’s backstory. At this point, I’m not sure that’s enough. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve got those last four pages.

The four-page ‘Somewhere In America’ section (I can only assume we’re going to get more of these as the series progresses) features a quite frankly bizarre encounter between a young man and a buxom, dark-skinned woman who turns out to be considerably more than she appears. This sequence works on so many levels it’s breath-taking. Both lyrical and mundane, it balances pretty much perfectly on the dividing line between beauty and horror, sex and death, and deals with the kind of fundamental questions about love, sexuality and divinity that would have any student of Freud or Jung squealing with delight. Lovern Kindzierski’s artwork appears to be fairly straightforward but has a fluidity and creativity that is very appealing. In these four pages, the comic offers the Gaiman-esque weirdness that the rest of the issue has only hinted at and delivers a considerably greater impact in only a fraction of the space.

This isn’t to say that the main story is terrible. It certainly isn’t. It is, however, an incredibly slow burn. The inclusion of the last four pages serves as a reassurance that, yes, the world that Shadow is in the process of entering really is as disturbing and compelling as the Gaiman name on the cover suggests. Taken as a whole, then, this issue (just about) manages to do its job in introducing our main character and giving us a tantalizing look at the wider world in which the story takes place. On that basis, I think it’s worth a look.

NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Thanks to the guys for the permission to post it here as well.

Death Comes To Call – Thanos #1

Lemire and Deodato conjure 70s sci-fi magic, as the big purple bad guy’s solo series gets off to a strong start.

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Thanos and a big pile of skulls. Enough to encourage you to buy the issue? Oh, yes.

I was a kid in the 70s. Gawky, goofy, obsessed with Doctor Who. And, like, I suspect, most boys of my generation, World War II. The pervasive effects of the Second World War on popular culture in the UK during the 70s really can’t be overstated. In film and on TV, Britain and its allies defeated the Nazis and theirs with varying degrees of realism, drama and earnestness. As a boy, Commando and Warlord were my comics of choice. (Until Marvel finally got their act together, acquired the rights to Doctor Who and started publishing Doctor Who Weekly, of course.) Published by D C Thomson, Commando books were (and still are, for that matter) digest-sized, single-story comics offering intense blasts of action-peppered storytelling with art that ranged from almost frenzied rough lines to beautifully detailed realism. They were a staple of my childhood years, thanks largely to my grandmother faithfully buying an issue for me every week.

So, what on earth has this got to do with Thanos? Well, every so often, the newsagent’s would be sold out of Commando books, so grandma would buy me an issue of Starblazer instead – same format, same publisher, but mad sci-fi/science fantasy instead of gritty war stories. This first issue of Thanos reminds me rather powerfully of some of those 70s sci-fi comics. This is largely due to Mike Deodato’s (I guess he doesn’t need the Jr anymore) artwork, but Jeff Lemire does a fantastic job of creating an exotic, alien setting for his story – and in a wonderfully economical way, too.

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Scene-setting. Very nice.

I must confess I’m not what you would call a Thanos ‘fan’. I like the character, but have yet to read the original Starlin Infinity Gauntlet stories. The cosmic side of the Marvel universe remains something of a mystery to me. That said, Thanos #1 is a good place to dive in and immerse yourself in the madness. We start off with a rather nicely done bit of narration[1] introducing us to the Black Quadrant, the moon from which Corvus Glaive rules his band of mercenaries (known as the Black Order), who in turn enforce his will throughout the territory that had formerly belonged to Thanos, Glaive having been Thanos’ right hand man when the ‘mad Titan’ had sat on the throne. Both Deodato’s art and Lemire’s words combine rather beautifully here; the images of the moon complex and tower, a group of Black Order mercenaries, and Glaive himself sitting on the throne surrounded by arcane tubing and wires echo are impressive both for their detail and ability to evoke the weird sci-fi comics of my childhood. Having explained that Glaive has usurped Thanos’ seat of power, no time is wasted in showing us Thanos returning and the entirely predictable carnage and devastation that follows. It is to Lemire’s and, particularly, Deodato’s credit that none of this violence feels remotely run of the mill. On the contrary, it is spectacular and dramatic stuff.

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‘THOOM’. That’s not going to be good, is it?

The sense of grim inevitability these moments produce is important for the action that follows. Once Thanos arrives, Glaive chooses to try to defend ‘his’ throne – a decision that, I must admit, rather surprised me. I expected abject grovelling and some sort of guff about how he was keeping the seat warm for his newly returned boss. The fight that follows is brutal and short. Having destroyed the weapon from which Glaive takes his name and to which his life force is tied, Thanos gives his former lackey a choice: kill himself or let Thanos do it for him. And, as much as I can recognise that, yes, this is all a bit contrived and obvious, the moment when Glaive chooses the former option and plunges a shard of his shattered weapon into his stomach remains both dramatic and remarkably powerful. Thanos really is a scary guy.

The build-up to and depiction of the fight is broken up by the introduction of Tryco Slatterus, Champion of the Universe, who is hunting the Titan Eros, otherwise known as Starfox. Former Avenger Starfox is doing what Starfox does best – having romantic fun with a… ahem… diverse range of lovers. (Well, he does have euphoria-inducing powers…) The story here becomes just a tad predictable: mysterious, buff-looking, tough-talking chap turns up to whisk Starfox away from his life of self-indulgent pleasure. A combination of threats, snark and exposition ensues. The dialogue, for the most part, is serviceable enough, although I’m inclined to say that Starfox describing Tryco’s ship as a “space turd” is a genuine highlight. Tryco’s news that he’s been asked by Thane, Thanos’ son, to help him kill Thanos is intriguing enough and that sense of intrigue is deepened when Tryco reveals that there’s going to be one more member of the Thanos-killing team they need to pick up on the way back to Thane.

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Starfox having fun. I think he needs a bigger bed…

Speaking of which, the final section of the issue deals with Thane and Death discussing their plan to kill Thanos. This is some nice stage-setting. Anyone who’s even only superficially acquainted with Thanos knows the role of the girl Death in his origin and ongoing psychopathy. (If you haven’t read Jason Aaron’s Thanos Rising, you really should – and not just because of the quite amazing Simone Bianchi artwork either.) What she’s doing here with Thane (a character with considerably more moral scruples than his father) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the comic and the greatest source of uncertainty in the story so far. Is she to be trusted? Almost certainly not. Why does Thane trust her? I’m not really sure. Her issue-ending revelation, however, does appear to be genuine. Throughout her conversation with Thane, we’ve seen images of Thanos obviously in some sort of physical distress and the issue ends very dramatically on a full-page of him bleeding (purple blood, naturally) from his nose and mouth and looking almost pathetically shocked. “Thanos is dying” we are told. While this does raise the question of why, in that case, Thane wants to kill him, it is a pretty shocking way to end the issue and primes the reader nicely for the rest of this opening story arc.

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On the whole, then, this is a very good comic book. We get to see all the major characters in action including Thanos at his most brutally powerful and, at the end, shockingly vulnerable. Lemire gets Starfox absolutely spot on and the relationship between Thane and Death is interesting. In this issue, he does pretty much exactly what any writer should with a first issue of an ongoing title. He provides action, clear characterisation and hints of an unfolding plot that is comprehensible and bold enough (the title character is dying, everyone!) to hook the reader. He is ably assisted, though, by Mike Deodato whose layouts and character work are simply phenomenal. The simple decision to frame some of the action in a rectangular border grid lends the whole comic an elegant but futuristic feel and the interplay of light and shadow is also very striking. In addition, Frank Martin’s colours are impressively alien; he uses a palette of dirty oranges and muted purples for the Thanos sections, that manage to feel strange without being garish. A strong, highly enjoyable issue, Thanos #1 is a highly promising start to what I hope will be a fascinating and exciting exploration of Marvel’s wider sci-fi universe.

[1] Who precisely is doing the narration remains a mystery to me. I did think it was Thane at one point, but I don’t think it is. Is this a sneaky return for third person narration? If so, I am a happy man.

Hitting The Ground Running – Red Hood and the Outlaws (New 52) Issue 1

Lobdell and Rocafort’s New 52 effort is visually spectacular but leaves the reader hanging.

red-hood-and-the-outlaws-01_00A team featuring Red Hood, Arsenal and Starfire would not be high on my list of things to read, but, having heard good things about the current iteration of Red Hood and the Outlaws, I thought I’d check out the first issue of the title’s New 52 run. And, yes, as the Rebirth team features Red Hood, Bizarro and Artemis, that probably is as silly as it sounds; it’s just the way I roll.

 

The first thing to point out is that Kenneth Rocafort’s artwork is generally jaw-dropping. This is the first time I’ve encountered him and to say that I was impressed would be an understatement. His character work is detailed but clear, his facial expressions appropriate and evocative, and his action scenes easy enough to follow. Plus, he does cheesecake pretty well, too. (More on this in a moment.)

Scott Lobdell’s story is fun enough, too. We start with the Arsenal formerly known as Speedy stuck in a jail in fictional Middle Eastern country Qurac after helping its people overthrow their government and then falling foul of the inevitable turmoil that followed. Lobdell has Red Hood narrating at this point, which is a pretty big clue that the character is about to become part of the action. What follows is a pretty exciting rescue with Red Hood disguised as an overweight pastor in a moment that is influenced by Total Recall. The escape takes place over two double-page spreads, the art laid out in a crazy-quilt of shards and slivers that does a reasonable job of conveying the frenetic action. And violence. (Many of Arsenal’s erstwhile captors will not be doing the prison rounds ever again.)

The pair break out of the prison compound and drive away in Red Hood’s jeep. There is a chase, there is banter, there are tanks. There is a bad joke. (“Tanks!” “Don’t mention it.”) And there is a pointlessly sexist and unfunny joke that leads to the introduction of probably the most problematic element of this issue. Starfire.

Now admittedly, I am almost entirely ignorant of everything that’s happened to the character since 1991, but her portrayal here seems off. Visually, she’s as impressive as ever. Rocafort’s artwork presents her as beautiful, powerful and emotionally detached from the carnage she’s wreaking on the Quraci tanks. The splash page that introduces her is poster-worthy; the joke much much less so. And this, I think, is the point. Starfire has always been an attractive character – and explicitly sensual too. She has always been seen as uninhibited and free with her sexuality in ways that proved to be awkward or embarrassing for her more uptight friends in the Teen Titans. At the same time, though, that sense of self-confidence and freedom led to a rather touching naivety that is wholly absent here. Partly this is because society itself has arguably become more relaxed about sexual morality and, as a result, there is less mileage to be gained in that frisson between sensuality and decorum. This poses challenges for any creative team taking the character on, but Lobdell and Rocafort’s approach is to sexualise her more obviously while at the same time presenting her as having divorced emotion from sexuality completely. That combination is… unsatisfying. There are hints of more going on with the character (not least with the introduction of a shady character who appears to be on the look out for Tamaraneans), but they’re almost drowned out in a blizzard of crass one-liners and eye candy.

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Say “cheese”!

That’s not to say that there isn’t interesting stuff going on here. Once the story moves on to the island of St Martinique (and the obligatory swimsuit shots – thank you, Mr Rocafort), it diverges into two branches: the Roy-Kori plotline that is there primarily to establish the ground rules about Starfire (alien, ephemeral connections with humans, promiscuous), and the Jason-Essence plotline that provides the impetus moving forward. Essence is a character about whom I know nothing. Clearly she has a strong connection with Jason and there’s some intriguing stuff about the ‘All Caste’, which appears to be an organization with which Jason has close ties. The references to bodies with organs removed long before death is interesting enough to make me want to read on, too. Jason’s journey to the Himalayas to find out what’s been going on with the All Caste leads to a closing confrontation with nameless robed and blade-wielding bad guys and a “To Be Explained” note at the end.

“To Be Explained” is a less than ideal way of ending a first issue, though, and does, I think, highlight a problem with the pacing of this story. While the opening few pages are fun and easy enough to follow, the later pages are much more opaque, requiring prior knowledge to understand and a willingness to wait for more explanations. On the whole, then, this first issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws is, despite its beautiful artwork, less satisfying than it should be. Partly, this is due to the portrayal of Starfire, but it’s also to do with pacing and structure. Hopefully, issue 2 will see things improve.

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Weird goth girl is weird. White on black word balloons are always a bit of a giveaway too.

Update: Things You Might Like To Read – II

the-sentry-issue-1I’m re-reading Jenkins and Lee’s The Sentry on the Marvel Unlimited app. This is partly because of Reggie Hemingway and Chris Sheehan’s just-released Weird Comics History podcast on the series. I wanted to read the comics again prior to listening to it. The first issue is beautifully drawn (Lee’s art is always amazing, always atmospheric) and the various Golden Age and Silver Age homages are great, too, but the issue as a whole is, because of its introductory nature, a little low-key. While those homages are enjoyable, they also break up the flow of the narrative to an extent that is a little jarring. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of this series and am enjoying revisiting it. While Robert Reynolds’ introduction is more than a little reminiscent of Micky Moran’s in Alan Moore’s Marvelman, Jenkins and Lee are taking a much more considered, deliberate approach here, hinting at the connections between The Sentry and his arch-nemesis The Void while also building up a clear sense of Robert’s rocky relationship with his wife, Linda. The links with the wider Marvel universe are hinted at rather than spelled out and, reading it again, I wonder if that was a bit of a mistake, as the story almost seems too isolated, too self-contained for a first issue that introduces (potentially) a major Marvel character. That said, there’s nothing in recent Marvel history that quite has that mix of psychological darkness and post-modern playfulness. I might blog about future issues as I read them.

dc-holiday-specialThe DC Holiday Special is pricey but rather fun. As is to be expected with an anthology title, the stories are variable in quality but all have something to recommend them. The linking narration from Harley Quinn is suitably funny and the artwork throughout is pretty good, with special mention going to Robbie Rodriguez for a breathtakingly breezy Flash story. That Flash story is perhaps the highlight of the issue for me with an ending that hits you right in the “feels” as a certain son of mine likes to say. The Green Lanterns and Batman/Superman stories run it close, though. The former is a rather strange, but nevertheless entertaining, take on the Christmas story of the Three Kings; the latter is an amusing game of one-upmanship between Damien Wayne and Superman, which is deliciously funny at times. Also worth a mention are the Constantine/Wonder Woman story and the Teen Titans story both of which feature some great art and character interaction. All in all, it’s an awful lot of fun and, although Christmas may have well and truly come and gone, if you can find it, it’s still worth picking up.

 

Another Epic Collection worthy of consideration is Avengers: Judgment Day, which features the conclusion of Roger Stern’s really very under-rated tenure on the book in 1987. The main meat of the collection is the story that follows up the Under Siege storyline which has itself been collected in an Epic Collection of its own. The art is mostly from the rather excellent John Buscema and the issues feature the team having to cope with the implications of a brain-damaged Hercules and a visit to Olympus to deal withjudgment-day an enraged Zeus who blames the Avengers for his son’s condition. It’s slightly bonkers stuff, but Stern’s skill has always been in playing the silly stuff straight and relying on interaction between the characters to provide the levity and/or drama. And this is certainly the case here. This isn’t quite the seminal Avengers team for me, but it’s close – Captain Marvel, Black Knight, Hercules, Captain America, The Wasp and a magically-weakened Thor. The Wasp hands over the chairmanship to Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) during this run and CM proves to be a very good choice. The collection also includes the Avengers/X-Men mini-series and the Emperor Doom graphic novel. As is always with these collections, it represents exceptional value for money and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“They Took My Dragon” – Travels and Travails in ‘Weirdworld’ issue 2

Underwater apes, an insane crystalline warrior and a whole load of dragon puke feature in this highly enjoyable and stunningly gorgeous story.

weirdworld-2015-002-000After an absurdly entertaining (and entertainingly absurd) issue which ended with Arkon, our straight-man hero, being captured by the underwater-dwelling monkey-men of Apelantis, you might expect issue 2 to feature escape attempts and/or some Planet of the Apes-style social commentary and/or the reuniting of Arkon with the rather impressive dragon he encountered in issue 1. And you would be partly right.

There is indeed an escape attempt.

First, though, I think we need to revel in some inner monologuing of a kind that balances adroitly on the dividing line between homage and parody. “They took my dragon. They took my sword and battle-bolts. They took my map. But they did not take my life. The fools. I am Arkon, lord of the warlords. And so begins my destruction of the kingdom of the Water-Apes.” That Arkon is uttering this over a gorgeous double page spread that emphasises just how large and impressive Apelantis is, to the side of which is set a much smaller panel in which a bound Arkon is being led in chains to a dungeon, highlights both his determination and, perhaps, just how out of touch with reality our ‘lord of the warlords’ is. Aaron is a damned good writer and I’m inclined to think that at least part of the attraction of writing a book like Weirdword and a character like Arkon must lie in the opportunity presented to send up, albeit lovingly, the kind of rugged, individualistic hero that Arkon is meant to be. That would certainly seem to be the case here.

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Arkon is not getting out of there in a hurry.

After attempting to break out of his stone-walled prison by literally banging his head against a wall, Arkon is interrupted by a voice from the next cell who suggests they escape together and turns out to be Warbow, hero of the Crystellium and character from the short-lived Crystar comic of the 1980s, an appearance that might well give my comic-buying school friend from that decade a jolt of excitement were he still buying comics. But I digress. Aaron handles this exchange remarkably well. Warbow for most of this section is an eye seen through a gap in the wall, an urbane and civilized voice speaking to an Arkon who, despite his wanderings around Weirdworld, persists in believing that Warbow is weaker than he is. He is disproved in dramatic and amusing style as Warbow punches through the wall (he’s escaped numerous times, but needs someone to help him get through the city’s upper levels). Arkon agrees to help him and the story moves into the kind of carnage that, in the hands of Mike Del Mundo, becomes a thing of beauty.

“The water swirls with blood and gore and animal screams. But all I see around me are the streets of Polemachus.”

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Del Mundo shows us what pornography for sharks might look like.

Del Mundo’s Arkon is an avatar of focused brutality, the centre of a double page spread that presents underwater combat as a strange ballet of grace and desperate violence. Around our barbarian hero swirl the bodies of defeated apemen; directly in front of him is another apeman, its face contorted into a grimace, its hands brandishing a wicked looking harpoon. In the background, Warbow is fighting his own battle. The artwork is busy, but also astonishingly pretty to look at. It’s more than just the air bubbles that indicate the action takes place underwater. The positioning of the dead or wounded apemen, and the clouds of blood dispersing through the ocean do too. It is impressive stuff.

In the following page, Arkon is depicted wrestling a final apeman, but while the action is bloody and visceral, the accompanying inner monologue simply reiterates Arkon’s almost monomaniacal determination to find his home. Arguably, it is this obsession that makes the character worth reading about. Certainly, he is not a laugh-a-minute wisecracking superhero in the vein of Spider-Man, nor is he an especially complex figure. Instead, Aaron is using him as a straight man, a muscle-bound foil for Weirdworld’s craziness. His determination to find his home, however, means that Arkon never quite descends into the realm of Conan-parody, although he does skirt it perilously at times. We never stop feeling some sort of sympathy for him, though. His anguish at losing his map of Weirdworld is compelling and leads to the next step of his tortuous journey; Warbow promises to give Arkon his own map, provided he helps the crystalline warrior rescue his prince from the prison that holds him. Arkon doesn’t have much of a choice at this point.

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Stable duty proved to be a bit more wearing than usual.

Before we see him embark on this new side-quest, we have a couple of pages with Morgan LeFay, ruler of Weirdworld and current ‘owner’ of Arkon’s erstwhile mount. Again, del Mundo’s art is phenomenal. The power and ferocity of the dragon is shown clearly as it tosses its ogre handlers around and, in at least one unlucky case, biting them cleanly in two. LeFay is made of sterner stuff, however, staring the dragon down, not flinching at its phlegm, slobber and body part-filled bellow. We don’t get to see Morgan tame the beast, but that’s not really the point. In facing down the dragon, she proves herself every bit as determined as Arkon and the following panel’s depiction of her riding the creature, soaring through a blood red sky, only reinforces the impression that she will be a formidable antagonist for our surly warrior king.

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She’s a sorceress; she can sort her hair out later.

Her leaving on that maiden flight is handy for Arkon and Warbow because it gives them an opportunity to infiltrate Le Fay’s stronghold and find Warbow’s prince who is being held within it. This builds up to a sequence that is both funny and disturbing. Arkon assumes that the prince will be held in the prisons, but Warbow tells us that he’s held in the vault, the significance of which becomes all too apparent once they fight their way to the vault and find out that Warbow’s ‘friend’ and prince is now a bag of collected gemstones. Del Mundo does a great job of depicting Warbow’s insane delight on discovering his friend and there’s a nice sense of the disturbingly absurd when he lifts up the bag and introduces Arkon to his friend. Arguably the narration is just a little heavy-handed here, but having a partner whose sanity Arkon doubts raises the stakes just that little bit more and reminds us that Weirdworld really is a place that can’t be trusted.

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The game of pass the parcel took an unexpected turn…

Issue 2 of Weirdworld, then, ends as it began – in adversity and solitude for our main character and in a gobsmacking reminder that Weirdworld is a dangerous, unpredictable place. But, it is entertaining too and the sense of Aaron and Del Mundo having a lot of fun with both the character and the setting is very clear and, to be fair, deeply infectious. The art is, at times, breath-taking and the dialogue is never less than snappy and engaging. In short, this is a great comic.