Take the Shot

An uncommon stack of one-shots and first issues to take chances on has swollen my comics budget these last few weeks; let’s see how many left me feeling that food and rent were overrated anyway…
There’s lots of lone-vigilante comics kicked off by some personal tragedy or amorphous toughguy animus; I’ve never seen one where the founding trauma is disillusionment with the way the world works and the vow of vengeance is taken against the status quo rather than some cardboard criminal class.

That’s the novel core of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev’s utterly refreshing “Scarlet,” about a Pacific Northwest slacker girl turned urban revolutionary. It’s not the Pacific Northwest of carnival WTO protests nor the Big Idea drama of a Brian Wood’s “DMZ”; Bendis’ choice of the micro-personal everywoman/nobody of noir for what will become a political thriller promises to give the most readers an emotional stake in the character, and already is making the manifesto aspects of the dialogue and plots ring entirely true (and way beyond any comic you could compare it to).

Bendis is giving a voice to the unaligned majority who know it’s all going wrong but would rather gain a country than pick a side; at the same time he makes *you* decide whether his protagonist’s elegant definitions of what ails us address the essence of the problem or just answer it with more unworkable one-liners. The everyday backdrop and true-to-life expression rank with the best of post-Pekar indie monologue ’n’ margin comics, and Maleev is a revelation on every page, from his bleak yet lyrical photojournalistic main style to the stretches he takes on the collaged narrative detours, from snapshot to webpage to sheer geometric abstraction. Most of Bendis’ franchised superhero stuff hasn’t been my thing, but this creator-owned book is thoroughly *his* thing, and I’ve never seen that go wrong.
The motif of lost and fluttering pages, lifted up from bureaucratic mountains and unknowable layers of catalogued secrets, flying through the air and into the gutters like yesterday’s headlines or the leaves of burned books, is a central image of Kathryn & Stuart Immonen’s “Moving Pictures” GN, and Kathryn’s quietly ingenious narrative shuffles and spins between moments in time as sad turning points and terrible choices settle into place.

Centered on the unlikely and dangerous romance between a museum curator working to hide France’s art treasures during WWII and a Nazi officer charged with obtaining them, the book alternates between the genteel veneer of their interrogation sessions, the tense liaisons which play out just as much like a hostile inquiry as these people who might have shared a passion in the days of genuine civilization struggle to understand each other’s attractions in wartime, and the fraying relationships of co-workers and loved ones as the woman, Ila, stays behind to safeguard the artworks (and fitfully attempt some harboring of fugitives) and her colleagues and best friend head literally for the hills or back home to Canada, respectively.

As drawn by the infinitely versatile Stuart, these characters and their world are scenes of superlative motion and expression but pictures approaching stasis — alternating between a Bauhaus-y brevity that recalls everything from Tintin to Spiegelman on the main narrative, and an engraved detail for monumental paintings and photos that preside over the action as reminders of the characters’ passions and pasts, these are moments inexorably sliding into history; the players walk through relics and masterworks that feel like a tomb at the eye of war’s storm, and are moving toward long-ago decisions and fates we can’t predict but already can’t change.

Kathryn writes some of the most three-dimensional characters and inventive storylines in comics, capable of deep insight and endless surprise, whether that instinct and attentiveness are being applied to the breakneck patter and spontaneous pacing of a Big Two event like the dazzling recent “Heralds” at Marvel, or the anxious wit, slicing cross-examination and creeping, patient dread of this compelling GN.

As the book progresses, the noose tightens on the refugees in the museum’s catacombs, “undesirables” in the town, and Ila’s conflicted heart, and we leave on notes of masterfully underplayed melancholy and unease. Comics have made some eternal works of their own detailing the heroism of those not meant to survive the Holocaust; “Moving Pictures” explores the guilt of those who were always likely to. Both Ila and the officer speak often of the “job” they’re sworn to do, and we all cling to routine and an old sense of purpose; this book navigates the elusive line between trying to keep a covenant with normalcy and just committing to bloody business as usual.
For someone raised in the two-party system of Marvel and DC, getting excited about the Gold Key or Charlton heroes was always a superhuman feat, but if the first re-rebooted issue of “Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom” is any sign, then Dark Horse and its creators have moved these books to the center of what matters. A science-fluent writer like Jim Shooter can update the technology-run-rampant origin in ways which resonate with current ambitions and fears (we’ve gone from nuclear-pile accident to particle-collider accident) rather than just numbing us with jargon or putting old slime in new vials, and Shooter hits the perfect key between modern theoretical-physics pop’s sense of wonder and period atom-age pulp’s paranoia.

This book honors both what we know now and what we felt when such freak deities of science first started populating our public imagination, and the old school is represented by some literal sci-fi pulp characters released into our reality through a very novel device Shooter has introduced for the bleed between matter and mind as quantum theorists perceive it. In the title character he gives us a plausible view of a Dr. Manhattan with a conscience, coolly analytical yet matter-of-factly ethical in a way that sinks roots into silver-age decency with zero corn. Artist/colorist Dennis Calero’s elegant chiaroscuro and frosty palette are perfect for the credible yet alien atmospheres and mythic melodrama. The textbook/dossier package design by Lia Ribacchi is uncommonly gripping and dignified too, yet another factor making this book a basic element of comics history and showing the state of the art.

On the other end of Doctor Solar’s cool spectrum is the screaming grindhouse of Scott Morse’s “Strange Science Fantasy,” drawn like a series of storyboards for a Roger Corman road epic and written entirely in captions resembling the callouts of a very long trailer. Playing out the fever dream of a post-historic cult of drag-race warriors and saviors, the first issue speeds by in a second but imprints your brain with hours of clever detail. This book is speeding right for the cliff of comics’ horizon and then gripping the air like a champ.
Returning to the sci-fi verite of the Millar-Hitch run on Fantastic Four with Hitch himself on art and Millar’s late-run successor Joe Ahearne scripting, FF Annual #32 reprises and advances that era’s exploration of superhero-team comics as domestic drama, where the domicile happens to be a high-tech bunker with open utility lines to several flavors of the beyond. Bravura widescreen action panoramas and molecularly intimate characterization, with a particularly well-handled portrait of Johnny Storm’s eternal but slightly regretful youth.

That was 52 pages of paradise; “Shadowland” is more like a pamphlet from purgatory, and there’s four left to go (though not for me). A pro-forma franchise to keep one corner of the MU’s “darkness” going for any who miss it during the companywide “Heroic Age” lightening of mood, “Shadowland” is clearly a sleepwalk for its gifted, vocally superhero-hating writer Andy Diggle, and I’m content to be woken up when it’s over.
Going even farther back in time, the latest mini to bear the name “Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four” by Christos Gage and Mario Alberti is an unqualified delight, set (so far, though it may time-hop) in the mid-’60s Marvel world of campus fervor and geopolitical slapstick, as a still-in-school Peter Parker and an early FF get stuck in the middle of an international incident between Doctor Doom and other invited and uninvited delegates to an international conference at the college. The topical humor of the Lee & Kirby days, and an unprecedented wit of dialogue and plotting from the ever-refreshing Gage, with interesting post-Gene Ha art from Alberti, make this a book worth traveling back to every time.

More simply regressive was the new “Thor, the Mighty Avenger,” a remix of the character’s origin which seems to try for period charm but ends up reading like the kind of knockoff that would be produced if Marvel had been acquired by Tower Comics in the late ’60s and Thor had been thrown to some of its lesser talents. Sad, because this book is done by two of comics’ greater talents; the poppy yet textured, post-Azaceta art by Chris Samnee is top flight, and writer Roger Langridge is, elsewhere, one of the most gifted humorists in comics. But even Asgardians have their off centuries. There might be some reality-bending twist in store for however long this book runs, as in “Age of the Sentry,” but I didn’t care about that one either.
For our two parting shots, in a great robbers ’n’ cops serendipity of scheduling, Darwyn Cooke’s gorgeous oversized “Parker: The Man With the Getaway Face” special is a succinct and stylish primer on why “Mad Men”-era misbehavior still seems so attractive, and Joe Casey and Chris Burnham’s shooter-iffic “Officer Downe” one-shot is a hilarious guts-and-glory farce that shows what happens when the long hunger for moral consistency leaves us nothing to eat but hot lead.

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