This week I read very little Marvel and DC, instead focusing on a ton of indie comics series that are easy to pick up with no prior comics background. As it turns out, a pair of the most-popular series fell a bit flat with me, while a few more obscure titles totally blew me away. I even found a new favorite comic book to add to my pull list!
Today’s back issue review includes write-ups on:
- Backways (2017) #1
- Captain Canuck (2015) #4-5
- Dept. H (2016) #1-12
- Eternal Empire (2017) #1-4
- Gasolina (2017) #1-4
- Justice League (2016) #20-21
- Maestros (2017) #1-3
- Mercury Heat (2015) #1-12 & FCBD
- Paper Girls (2015) #6-10
- Super Sons (2017) #1-4
- The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (2007) #1-6
- Victor LaValle’s Destroyer (2017) #1-6
I’ll tell you now that Maestros and Victor LaValle’s Destroyer are two of the best comics I’ve read from 2017 – they both totally blew me away!
Please let me know if you like this this post – I’m still experimenting with this new weekly series, but there’s no guarantee it will be back for more with you reading it.
And now – let’s get to the comics!
Backways (2017) #1, Aftershock Comics
Backways was a real delight, and one that expected you to keep up with it as it quickly sketched the relationship of our two protagonists. It was easy to go along for the ride after a mysterious disappearance in the opening pages showed us that in this universethe supernatural is real .
I don’t know why we can’t have more of THIS comic – YA-appropriate adventures in horror that pack decent scares and strong artwork, and maybe even focus on an entirely female cast of characters.
Captain Canuck (2015) #4-5, Chapterhouse
I continue to enjoy this little Canadian series that could. It’s imperfect, but something I crave: non-big two superheroes! Independent superhero titles aren’t especially plentiful, and ones that are of a similar calibre to Marvel and DC are rare.
In the past, we see how the Captain acquires his powers as he finds his near-catatonic brother and but must battle a polar bear to escape the weird alien cave, which is how Tom/Canuck learns about his newfound shield. In the present, he’s also trying to save his brother, putting his large team at significant risk.
Leonard Kirk’s art is much tighter in this issue than it was in the last – back up to the standard I expect from him, and quite attractive throughout. However, this script is having what I tend to call “jumpy panel problems.” This is where the script doesn’t quite line up with the panels, or the panel-to-panel flow isn’t quite clear and needs more dialogue or narration to clarify. It’s a fine issue, but if the rescue sequence at the end was a bit tighter I would have liked it more.
I loved this issue focused on Kebec both in the present day and in the past. While it didn’t move the plot forward too much, it just emphasized what an interesting supporting cast this book has. Also, even with all of the French (some of which I had to look up!) it flowed very well. The distinct art style in the Afganistan flashback worked for me, and Kirk was in solid form on the present day action.
Dept. H (2016) #1-12, Dark Horse
Volume 1 (issues #1-6)
Issue #1: Nicely done. It’s drawn by Kindt, so you have to be down with some uneven depictions. But, the watercolors from Sharlene go a long way to evening that out. Also, the plot is terrific. This is a really great opening chapter of a mystery that establishes all of the cast without it feeling like it’s just a set of introductions. It’s also a journey – a descent – by our lead character. I’m definitely engaged in this world and this mystery and want to keep reading.
Issue #2: A much smaller issue in scope than #2. Here, we have a quietly raging confrontation between brother and sister that spills out into the sea as they go to investigate a downed communication line. Kindt does a wonderful job with the strangley proportioned dive suits and the surrounding sea life. We’re also seeing flashbacks to how some of this same crew were in the aborted space venture that came before Dept. H. Kindt is really a master of these details, and both his art and storytelling are so much more refined here than on Mind MGMT.
Issue #3: A weaker issue. It’s still better and more interesting than average, but there’s just too many elements in here – both she and her brother were damaged, the crazy old guy is sabotaging the ship, water is flowing in. I mean, I guess it’s nice to see everything in peril all at once, but it feels like there’s not enough of a status quo to imperil so I’m not sure I care so much for the stakes. Like… just leave the base if everything is so sabotaged?
Issue #4: Some low grade drama in needing to repair the generators, but it’s a bunch of the same monologue about having a perfect memory, and a really long-drawn-out reveal that reveals… nothing? Maybe the art was too weak to understand what was revealed? This series is quickly crashing and burning, or whatever the underwater equivalent of that is.
Issues #5-6: We get a vaguely sensible explanation for Mia’s missing brother, but then this issue straight up stops making sense. We return to the base and… all of the stuff that was happening before is resolved? No comment on the crazy dude? And then Mia has a pointless dream? And then we spend pages waiting for her to decode a secret message and she kinda does and then everything… explodes? Again? This is so fucking boring. All of the initial mystery and tension and character work has been squandered in favor of random problems that stall this interesting plot.
Issues #7-12: This entire book has become a game of claustrophobia about being trapped in various parts of the station as we visit all of the supporting cast in flashback to see how they met Mia’s father. It’s gotten to the point where I am barely looking at the art, it makes such little sense. Just when the plot seems to inch forward, characters randomly decide to run off to create more narrative obstacles to this series getting anywhere. It’s all deus es machina every single issue with no direction, and the cliffhanger in the final issue of this arc is crushingly dumb.
Eternal Empire (2017) #1-4, Image Comics
Not all below-average comic books are demonstrably bad. Some of them are just a little limp.
Eternal Empire is light on script and heavy on visual storytelling in that very bland way that Jonathan Luna’s artwork can have. It aims for Game of Thrones, but winds up as something much subtler. Despite getting some interesting information from our characters and about the world, it just feels so very bland.
There’s no excitement, nothing pulling me forward, and no spark (well, except the actual spark) between our lead characters.
One point in this series’ favor is that it makes great use of a map featured in every issue. That allows characters to reference places to explain the sweep of wars back and forth across the landscape.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get excited about anything after the opening scenes tells us a new race is going to be bred by a woman and a dragon and then we skip over a hundred years into the future to follow some slaves as they break out of their work camps.
Their two stories are identical and would have been interesting if they were intercut, but instead they are delivered on after another in issues #1-2 – making things drag even more after the awesome intro.
Gasolina (2017) #1-4, Image – Skybound Entertainment
An extremely good debut comic book. Like the human portion of Scicario or a dozen other movies about drugs and Mexico, but with an Alien sort of body horror element to it to. Violent and sexual without ever being exploitative, and with several dense layers of mystery (who are the couple really; what was her transgression; are the creatures allied with the kidnappers, or a coincidence).
This is a comic that gives many, many reasons to continue reading.
It’s amazing how different the rhythm of this issue is with less facts to establish compared to the first. It works both to its benefit and its detraction.
I’m a little lost in trying to find the divide by the stoic characters’ failure to communicate with each other and the book’s failure to communicate with us as the reader. There are things I still don’t understand. We never really get an answer for there being no workers in the fields. Yet, the plot carries us to revelations about other aspects, especially as our protagonists discover the remains of the murdered family from last issue.
I still enjoy this book and want to know where it’s going.
I’m sad to see that the lack of violence against women and treating them as sex objects only made two issues before showing up in spades. I suppose it’s part of the territory with a story like that, but I’m generally not into reading about it.
As with the last issue, this narrative had a few disjointed points – I was very confused about how our protagonists (at least one of whom is some kind of former special forces solider) wound up in a firefight at the tailgate of a smuggling truck after the pair of were watching it just a panel before.
If this comic cannot get the narrative under control and also ditch the graphic violence towards women, I’m out.
This one tied up a lot of details, but I think this book might be a little closer to standard gang war with some creepy bugs than it’s going to be “Lazarus Meets Alien,” which is kind of what I was hoping for.
Justice League (2016) #20-21, DC Comics
Bryan Hitch writes Flash in a Groundhog’s Day of his own causing, and the farther he goes back to stop it the worse it gets.
Hitch really seems to be into these themes of unpreventable horror washing over our heroes. I actually really buy it as an overarching thread to his Justice League run, but the stories all feel very static and similar to each other. A strong ending for this two-issue story (love a short one) that teases that all of these threats actually do connect, which maybe casts the run up to this point in a kinder light.
Maestros (2017) #1-3, Image Comics
Welcome to my new favorite comic book. Steve Skroce’s Maestros is a fucking tour-de-force. Every page makes me giddy. It is inventive, profane, intricate, fascinating, sacrilegious, sometimes silly, and apparently meant to become a movie starring Adrien Brody, because our protagonist is drawn in his exact image.
This is similar to Charles Soule’s Curse Words, a hit for Image in 2017. In both books there is a parallel magical world with a lone refugee on Earth whose relatively peaceful existence is about to come to an end.
Here, that refugee happens to be the sole surviving member of the despotic magical dynasty of the Maestro that rules the universe, and it’s time for him to return home to take the throne. He begrudgingly does so, fighting off traumatic memories of a childhood spent in a terrible magical boarding school while fending off a coup that didn’t think he’d come back to take the throne.
Somehow Skroce, who both writes and draws this comic, manages to toe a line between epic fantasy and ridiculous, sometimes off-colour gags. Our new Maestro’s moves toward social justice in all the realms probably come off as funny both for folks fighting for civil rights and deplorable bigots. That’s quite a feat! Also, the creature design in this book is off the charts. Like, Cantina scene in Star Wars squared.
One of the most fun series I’ve read in a long, long time.
Mercury Heat (2015) #1-12 & FCBD, Avatar Press
Volume 1 (issues #1-6 & FCBD)
A tremendous act of world-building and hint-dropping by Kieron Gillen with stunning artwork from Omar Francia and Nahuel Lopez. Gillen packs this with amazing concepts that make just enough sense (ahem, take notes, Morrison), but which we’re desperate to expand upon. Add to that a murder mystery, and this is a book that’s hard to put down.
Aside from the amazing, movie-caliber script and best-in-comic line art, the colors here are marvelous. It’s difficult to color this much gray and silver stuff without it looking flat or utlra reflective, but Digikore Studios have found a perfect middle ground here that makes all the machinery look big, shiny, and cool.
The central pair of conceits here are endlessly fascinating. One is environmental – Mercury is mostly uninhabitable cold, except for the part where the sun makes it a roasting inferno. There’s only a brief temperate range between the two, and it’s constantly moving across the planet’s surface at the pace of a steady jog.
The other conceit is about human technology. Human memory has been digitized. That brings the obvious trope of downloading handy skills and being perfectly assessed for your ideal job, but also introduces the idea of writing short-term memories to temporary RAM. Don’t want to remember a disappointing tryst or need to forget some top secret police work? Simply load-out your short-term memories and move on with your life.
It’s not only a terrific concept, but it gives Gillen a useful (and often hilarious) device of having his protagonist Luiza pull up notes in her mind that sometimes explain the world and other times explain why she willingly forgot some aspect of it.
The murder mystery just keeps getting deeper as the story progresses, zooming out from an anonymous worker who got caught in the heat to a planet-wide conspiracy. Major Total Recall vibes.
(Avatar Press books are frequently full of sex and violence, but this never gets disturbingly bloody and shows male full frontal nudity before exposing any breasts.)
Volume 2 (issues #7-12)
The series takes a hairpin turn from the first issue, effectively becoming a full-on future tense tie-in to Alan Moore’s ultra-bloody zombie-esque comic Crossed. We begin with a bit of mystery here, but it devolves quickly into an orgy of blood and guts with none of the nuance of the first arc.
It’s a pity Gillen tossed away this concept on such a peculiar crossover, because I haven’t read a concept this good or a character this interesting in a long, long time.
Paper Girls (2015), Volume 2 (issues #6-10), Image Comics
Paper Girls, Vol. 2 takes all of the peculiar sci-fi mystery of its opening arc and transports it nearly 20 years into the future. That significantly changes the dynamics of the story and allows our characters to show a little bit more bravery and agency than they could in the first volume.
This arc is underpinned by the theme of 2016 seeming as foreign to the kids from 1988 as the language and technology of 30 years from now would seem to us as present day readers. Having a present-day anchor between the book’s two endpoints in the time stream help to make it much more engaging and readable. We start to get a sense of what’s going on here and what’s at stake.
(Also, having an adult in the room with our cast (even if it’s just another version of a character we know), makes a big difference in giving this book a voice of skepticism and reason compared to the first arc.)
I still have problems with Cliff Chiang’s artwork. Every girl looks the same but with different hair! We find out that our main character is Asian, and I would have never known that from his art without the character saying something about it.
This volume ends with what might be the craziest issue yet! We get some real decisions and relationships with the kids, and it feels like they have a little bit of control over where the plot (and time) takes them instead of being shuttled from one place to the next.
Super Sons (2017) #1-4, DC Comics
An utterly charming comic book that manages to write super kids as kids without a lot of contrivance about how mature they can be as they battle world-threatening dangers.
Super Sons strikes a wonderful balance between making Damien Wayne a comedic know-it-all versus him being just a rude inexperienced kid. Having the wide-eyed Jonathan Kent around is the perfect foil for Damien’s more obnoxious tendencies.
This book just never stops being entertaining. It’s the perfect amount of drama and danger. The boys begrudgingly assemble, have a delightful face-off with Lex Luthor, and ultimately face a thread that even their father’s might have trouble defeating. There are lots of small beats inside this arc that make it feel much longer than four issues and full of distinct scenes.
This first arc comes to a close with everything working. The banter, the stakes, the artwork – it’s exactly the Super Frenemies book it ought to be. While having grown-ups save the day every time will get tiresome, this tale ends with a perfect gun from the first act going off in the third.
The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (2007) #1-6, Dark Horse Comics
Here’s a lesson for creators out there: challenge your readers, but give them your Rosetta Stone. Let them decide if they want to decode every conversation or if they want to parse all the information on their own. Either way, they’ll feel rewarded when they figure everything out, and they’ll have a safety net if they missed some things).
In some ways, The Umbrella Academy is simply about an estranged family reassembling for a funeral. Yet, this isn’t any family, but a group of seven unrelated super-powered children who now number only five as they come together to pay tribute to their adoptive father.
Each issue of this series plays with the tension between what the world thinks of these unique children and what they think of themselves. It never once tells us the answer, but asks us make our own decisions about who they are.
Ultimately the tensions of the early issues don’t quite pay off, but even that is its own little piece of deconstruction. Basically, these imperfect heroes and unreliable narrators get thrust into a typically ludicrous superheroic climax. It feels fake and wrong after we’ve gotten to know them so well, but what else were we expecting: after all, this is a superhero comic book.
(Also, this had the best recap pages I’ve ever seen!)
Victor LaValle’s Destroyer (2017) #1-6, Boom! Studios
This is a masterful, thought-provoking, perfectly constructed comic series about science-fiction and being black in America. I’ve never read another comic quite like it and it would be a crime to give very much away.
We meet a monster. The monster – Frankenstein’s monster, suddenly unfrozen from years of hibernation. He tears through delicate flesh and covers hundreds of miles searching for something.
We also meet a scientist. A genius, a black woman, and a single mother. She is searching for something, too – her next breakthrough, but also safety and stability for her pre-teen son who knows all too well how America doesn’t think that black lives matter.
Those two stories have more to do with each other than you might think. That due in part to the institute where our scientist used to work, and where her ex-husband is still employed. Yet, there’s also the connection forged by grief and by needing to rely on science, because humans with their weak flesh and even weaker emotions have failed you so many times before.
The series ends exactly as it always had to – quickly, brutally, and destroying everything that matters in the world. It’s amazing that LaValle created such an interesting universe for just six issues.