BEST OF WEEK: BATTLING BOY: THE RISE OF AURORA WEST — This is a tough gig on art. Paul Pope’s BATTLING BOY was the best book released last year, adored in equal measure by critics and fans alike. It actually managed to surpass the monstrous amounts of hype that accrued around an A-list industry superstar taking more years than initially projected to produce a new original work of more than two hundred pages. Shortly after its release, this prequel starring the female co-protagonist was announced. I was thrilled until hearing that Pope was only co-writing. There was no way this project would be able to hit the heights of solo Pope, not with any other cooks in the kitchen. Enter David Rubín. I don’t know where Pope found him, but this guy does an uncanny cover version of Pope’s very distinctive style that completely sells the most jaded critic. The layouts are inventive and dynamic, and the body language is completely rocking the Kirby dynamism (particularly, crucially, in the action sequences). Rubín manages to straddle that same line that Pope does between over-exaggerated cartoony stylization that’s totally madcap and fun with this really creepy ominous foreboding inherent in the scratchy linework. Rubín does a fantastic job depicting Aurora at several different points in time, aging her in immediately recognizable and very convincing ways so that the reader can identify how old she is at a glance. Then, he’s got an entirely different skill set going on with Haggard and Gately, both of whom are these imposing physical presences whose massive statue and gruff exteriors belie their obvious affection for their young charge. I could go on and on about Rubín, how well his black-and-white work holds up next to Pope’s full-color situation last year. But this would all be nothing more than a bunch of brilliant technical craft without Pope and J.T. Petty’s script, which imbues the story with its heart and soul. There is, of course, a major theme of barely buried melancholy running through this entire thing as we examine what a massive hole the death of Rosetta West has left in the lives of her husband and daughter, which is unfortunate enough just on a surface level, but infinitely worse when you’ve already hit the original and know how that opening scene plays out, what’s just around the corner for these characters. On top of everything else, this functions as a coming-of-age story for Aurora as she figures out that her imaginary friend might not have been so imaginary after all. This goes a very long way toward fleshing out not just the title character but one of Sadisto’s previously generic henchmen as well and retroactively imbues BATTLING BOY with even more depth and pathos then a first reading could possibly provide. The writers never lose sight of keeping the family dynamic front and center, which goes a long way toward fleshing out these characters and making them fully realized. Which, of course, makes the wait until the next full-on Pope installment of BATTLING BOY all the more grueling.
G.I. JOE VS TRANSFORMERS #3 — Scioli continues to produce cracked-out mashed-up cracklin’ entertainment that is both celebration and codification of the medium’s vast potential. No matter how high the stakes escalate in this conflict between the various armies of two worlds, Scioli’s sense of thrill and exhilaration is always front and center, which makes this a consistently fun read page after page, no matter who’s getting blown up or killed for a fake funeral or what have you. This guy packs as much into a double-page splash as other artists do into entire issues. Scioli also continues to elevate the source material by providing richer backstories and character motivation than even Hama did during his immortal (and still ongoing!) run. I would devour an entire book about Destro and Megatron just hanging out, verbally sparring over tactics and the craft of war. I also love the fact that even though we weren’t on Earth at all for #2, Scioli goes ahead and says that an issue’s worth of business actually went down, but we just missed it and so have to catch up. Once again, one of the best books of the month.
BATGIRL #35 — Hopes have been high ever since Babs Tarr’s fresh and fun redesign of Barbara’s costume hit the Internet a little while back. It actually got to the point that the hype kept building and building and people kept posting more and more fan art, and I started to wonder if the poor script could possibly meet the expectations that were building to such a massive level, week after week. However, Cameron Stewart & Brenden Fletcher overcome the odds and manage to deliver a first issue that sets a definitive tone from the first page that is a bit more light-hearted than what we have come to expect from the majority of The New 52. Opening with Barbara’s move places the focus squarely on her secret identity and provides a richness of characterization that has been lacking in the character since Simone’s exit. And the interpersonal reactions with her new roommates are entertaining unto themselves. The reader certainly isn’t sitting around waiting for the tights to come out, it’s fun enough to watch the characters all bounce off one another the morning after Barbara’s debaucherous moving-in party that is sadly only depicted in flashback (though it should be noted that the method of depiction via our heroine’s photographic memory is a very cool trick that is running neck-and-neck with Scioli above for this week’s best “only in comics!” moment). Stacking the supporting cast with Dinah Lance crashing on the couch is a great idea, particularly in light of the last-page twist. This one is a little bit less all-ages than I was expecting. It’s probably just barely over the line of not being appropriate for my five-year-old in the way that GOTHAM ACADEMY totally is, but the slightly racier tone is a good fit for the character and plays well here. Yet another impressive launch from DC’s line of Batman books, the only corner of Editorial that has been consistently knocking it out of the park for the past three years.
BATMAN #35 — At last! It’s almost been half of this volume’s lifespan, but we finally made it back to the present. So great to open with the simple “GOTHAM CITY, NOW” caption. Of course, ha ha, Snyder’s still got to mention Zero Year in the very first narrative caption. We get it, Snyder, it was a whole thing, man! Zero Year, it really happened! You’ve sold us on it. It’s cool to see young Lola there in the opening section and even better to at least get a page of that future from #28 that they keep teasing. Snyder naturally writes a terrific dynamic between Bruce, Alfred, and Julia. And the rest is Capullo/Miki/Plascencia slugfest thunder. The JLA attacks. This is one of those cases where there’s no way that what we got should have been the cover. I really wish they would have saved the one they used until next issue and let it actually be a surprise because as soon as Diana shows up, your first question shouldn’t be, “All right, cool, but where’s Clark?” It should be riveting enough that she’s there all by herself. A fun set-up here, though, going forward. Capullo’s had a couple of months to get ahead, so here’s hoping he’s strapped in for another blessed year of regular deadline delivery goodness.
BATMAN ETERNAL #27 — I don’t know these guys, Javier Garron on art with Romulo Fajardo, Jr. on colors, but they continue this book’s tradition of importing guys with a strong European aesthetic that really makes this book feel different from what we’ve been getting lately in all the regular books. When Ibanescu starts talking to the Zebra and actually addressing it as Zebra, though, that’s probably the high point of this issue for me. Cool to see Flamingo pop up, it’s always nice when someone runs with one of the million things Morrison’s tossed off. And we’ve definitely got a couple of crazy cliffhangers to follow up on. Next week!
FUTURES END #23 — Everything keeps clipping along here. I remain a fan of the Frankenstein/Amethyst crew’s extraplanetary explorations. That was a nice line Atom got about swords for those of us who collected comics in the eighties. Still really not caring about Voodoo’s squad, and the Tim/Madison plot is taking quite a dip now if we’re just going to turn it into a triangle with Ronnie, of all people. That ending, though. Yeah, man. It must be October. Completely horrifying.
ARROW: SEASON 2.5 #1 — All right, I’m confused. I picked this up because I was feeling giddy about the Season Three premiere today, but I thought this was supposed to be a bridge between the seasons? Why do we care about a Brother Blood cliffhanger at this point, is this supposed to be him coming back? I doubt it? The whole deal is ill-advised. I’m sticking with Amell.
WYTCHES #1 — “The Black Mirror” is one of my favorite Dick Grayson stories of all time, so of course I was onboard when Scott Snyder & Jock announced this new creator-owned, very wisely soliciting the talents of one of the best colorists in the business and previous Snyder collaborator on THE WAKE, Matt Hollingsworth, and Clem Robins of 100 BULLETS lettering fame to round out the creative ensemble. This was even better than I was expecting, though. You can tell that everyone involved really put their heart and soul into the work even while hustling it up to get in print during the month of October. We open with a horrifying scene of a mother about to get apparently eaten by a tree and failing to receive assistance from her young son in a manner that is most disturbing and that yields the probable catch-phrase of the comic, “Pledged is pledged.” Cut to the present and we’ve got a dad trying to buoy the spirits of his daughter while waiting for the bus to take her to her first day at a new school. There are a couple of major plot escalations that I won’t spoil, but the bulk of this issue is spent laying groundwork, establishing who these people are. Snyder does really efficient characterization via a long-distance phone call between the dad, who’s a graphic novelist, and his editor. This is important work because we only get a few pages to ground these characters in a relatable situation before the serious shit really starts coming down, so serious that we’re going to have to wait another month to catch the whole thing on-panel. Razor-sharp narrative craft throughout from Snyder, but Jock and Hollingsworth do plenty of heavy lifting here, building suspense by sending the camera over to the woods just when we’re getting comfortable with some heartwarming characterization. Really, the dominant element that I’m coming away with sitting here typing without my copy within arm’s reach is Hollingsworth’s reds. He always varies up his palette depending on the project, but here he keeps things not quite as muted as HAWKEYE but pretty restrained nonetheless, reining it in with some quiet daytime yellows giving way to ominous blues and greens before exploding into these vibrant reds. This is a very promising start, and I fully expect all parties to deliver on the promise of this initial installment.
PUNKS: THE COMIC #1 — Very cool to see this return after such a long hiatus. I was lucky enough to pick up the first issue from Kody Chamberlain at a con a few years back and was struck by its completely unique usage of paste art in the name of depicting general skullfuck insanity. Fialkov & Chamberlain have only gotten more demented in the past few years. This issue’s sequence with Dog and Larry, then King Dog versus the all-out gnome attack is wonderful and horrifying. I had to take a little walk when it was over just to pull myself together. There’s really nothing else like this on the rack. Or anywhere else. Recommended to fans of the fundamentally disturbing absurd.
SEX CRIMINALS #8 — This book might actually be even better when it for the most part dodges its original premise and just lets the characters hang out and tell us shit through that broken fourth wall. As invested as everyone is in Jon & Suze’s relationship, the opening scene of the latter scoping out Robert Rainbow during an OB/GYN visit manages to play not as some kind of betrayal but actually does some solid work fleshing out her character out and making her seem even more endearing. Who wouldn’t want a bit of an escape to normalcy after all that crazy shit that went down in the first arc? And RR turning out to be the absent Cat Man from Jon’s past is wonderful. Once again, as good as the actual funny book pages are, they’re trumped by the heartfelt outpourings from the readers, many of whom have apparently just lost their virginity and/or are receiving powerful resonances with Jon battling ADHD/OCD, if this month is a representative sample. The absolute best thing about this whole issue, though, is Zdarsky telling the readers to drop Gillen/McKelvie a line at the THE WICKED + THE DIVINE e-mail address to tell them what their book helps readers masturbate onto. Incredible.
THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS #24 — Goodness day! Our Mister Hickman is a bit zanier than he has previously let on. I mean, sure, you put Oswald on the first page, but I didn’t think that that meant that we were just going to do the whole thing here and now. Pitarra continues to hone the precision of his linework and Bellaire’s tones are as beautifully complementary as ever. A perfect example of the insanity of this book is that we can cut straight from 11/22/63 to four pages of Von Braun and Gagarin lost in space searching for Laika and then getting abducted by a giant alien mothership. This book is nothing but good fun.
ASTRO CITY #16 — I had no complaints with the previous two-parter, but Busiek and company all dig a little bit deeper here and reinforce why this has been one of the very best books on the rack whenever it’s shown up over the past twenty years. This is a really sweet tale that began life as an eight-page back-up feature detailing Superman’s college years (of course it did!). The Silver Age love is right there in the DNA. The main feature is timeless and universal. I had a bit of a hiccup toward the end jumping back to the present and then had to go back and reread the opening sequence to really fully process how it all went down. The transitioning overall could have been smoother, we saw the stitches a little bit, but I very much didn’t care. This is a beautiful piece of work, and I’m grateful that we live in a world where this book not only appears so regularly that we’re already on #16, but it’s still building and gaining momentum from the very first page of this volume toward something that has only barely been hinted at while we’ve been getting entertained as hell along the way. And nowhere else has the terrific cover-as-first-page gimmick Vertigo’s been doing this month yielded such glorious fruit as Alex Ross just about getting tricked into producing a page of sequential action. Good on ya, Shelly Bond!
BLACK SCIENCE #9 — Man, that is a pretty bleak way to open the issue here with the Becca’s Dead Twin flashback. Unfortunate. Matteo Scalera & Dean White have arguably never looked better. These pages are glorious. The two-page spread of the cars racing through the marketplace is out of control. And that whole second-person captions deal in the back half of this issue certainly does end on a crazy twist. Man, nine issues in, and these fellas are just barely ramping up the crazy. Strong work!
AVENGERS—X-MEN: AXIS #1 — Remender does a terrific job setting up the ensemble’s chemistry from the very first page, providing a tight rapid-fire shot of banter as the team flies up to the scene of the latest dastardly doing. The tone is Whedon meets Bendis, which I suppose is the bull’s-eye you want to be aiming for with the Avengers these days. Grounding the characters’ interactions in the rhythms of Whedonspeak goes a long way toward making these pages feel like a widescreen adventure at the multiplex, which helps distinguish it from the seemingly never-ending onslaught (I’m sorry) of these things that bleed one into another. This is a good choice to set the scene, checking in with these guys before cutting back to the cliffhanger from UNCANNY AVENGERS #025. Things get pretty drastic pretty quickly as the Red Onslaught fellow brings Wanda in his thrall the damn first page after the titles, which is really not a good thing. All the really horrible shit always starts with Wanda, seems like. But there is a nice moment of Summers brothers reconciliation before more horrible things are about to erupt. Adam Kubert & Laura Martin show up with their usual high level of craft, imbuing every scene with enough grandeur to make this feel like maybe possibly this one will be a big deal. Remender’s got a pretty strong track record, so I’m certainly willing to extend him some credit, but I’ve got to say that just in terms of premise, it seems like maybe he’s digging a little bit too deep into the old nineties well. I mean, I was all for going back to the Age of Apocalypse back in UNCANNY X-FORCE, but this whole Red Onslaught thing might be a little much. What’s next, “X-Cutioner’s Song 2?”
AVENGERS #036 — Well, this is one cover that certainly came true, isn’t it? The cool thing about Hickman’s time-jump is that he can actually make Thor and all the crew probably dying on the other side of the multiverse seem pretty plausible to the less jaded readership just because it will take years and years of present-day Marvel stories starring that unworthy fellow to catch up to this point. Really cool to see former SECRET WARRIORS collaborator Stefano Caselli back in the saddle on this one. The guy’s another seriously underrated professional. In other news, Bobby has pretty much just turned into Tony Stark? It’s not only his title and role within the ensemble, he even seems scripted like Downey’s delivery all of a sudden. Once again, Hickman does solid work filling an issue in which basically one thing happens (they leave) with enough strong character-based interaction that it makes for a satisfying read in singles. Thanks, man.