BATMAN AND AQUAMAN #29 — After last month’s conclusion of the gripping five-part Two-Face arc, it looks like this title is going to slide back into a THE BRAVE & THE BOLD-style format with our first seemingly random team-up completely covered by internal story logic and giving way to the best single issue of this series since the forever crushing #18. This issue features our titular heroes storming the beach of Ra’s Al-Ghul’s secret island headquarters only to discover a pod of mutilated sperm whales whose wombs have been used to grow a gang of super-deformed Damian Wayne clones. The no-dialogue Page Sixteen of Batman rushing into the hangar and fighting a bunch of ninjas is yet another iconic sequence that Gleason/Gray/Kalisz toss off with apparent ease that belies the serious sequential storytelling mechanics that are this book’s stock in trade. These men make excelling at their craft look effortless when, of course, it’s anything but. And it’s funny, when Millar had his Joker/Batman pastiche character Nemesis do this exact same thing a couple of years back, I was the first to call bullshit, but Batman screaming at his son’s grandfather from outside the front windshield of an airborne jet, I have absolutely no problem with that. He’s Batman. This remains the strongest offering from DC’s New 52 and shows no sign of slowing down. I know it’s going to happen sooner or hopefully much much later, but I will be heartbroken when the day comes that these men have told every story on this book that they want to tell.
BEST SINGLE OF THE WEEK: ANIMAL MAN #29 — The end of an era. Jeff Lemire put his stamp on this book to such a definitive degree that now that he’s decided to move on, DC has just cancelled the series. That is some Morrison/Gaiman-level business right there, Wednesday night faithful! This final issue serves as a heartfelt epilogue to the entire run and is a slam-dunk from start to finish, knocking it out of the park by invoking the simple and heartfelt sweetness of Maxine Baker, who has been the heart and soul of this series for the majority of the run. There are no tricks here, this entire issue is very straightforward. We open by welcoming original series artist Travel Foreman back to the fold for a few pages. Foreman’s distinctive art style went a long way toward initially defining the mood and overall tone of the book, and it is a beautiful bit of recursion to have him back to bookend the series. As in all great serial fiction, the end here is not a hard THE END, but merely a springboard for more adventures in the characters’ lives that will take place off-panel outside the observation of us three-dimensional readers but still accessible through our imaginations. I was pleased to see these particular members of the supporting cast assume an elevated role. What follows is a short no-nonsense conversation between Buddy & Ellen that it looks like should yield an end to the marital strife that has been such a prominent part of their relationship in this volume. But the real centerpiece of this issue is of course the bedtime story that Maxine tells her father that is all the sweeter for its innocent skew on recent events, because it shows that Maxine has not let all of these horrors taint or corrupt her. Despite everything that has happened, she has held onto her childhood, her purity. Lemire enlists the other half of his SWEET TOOTH/TRILLIUM heartbeat, Jose Villarrubia, to color his own art, resulting in a stylistic shift that perfectly matches the content and hammers the reader with a level of emotion more often seen in creator-owned books. But Lemire’s level of engagement with this material is so strong, he loves the Bakers so much, that they might as well have sprung from his own heart. It is this deep and abiding connection that has made this such a strong offering every single month since September 2011, and all of us who have been tuned in all along the way are going to dearly miss this title while wishing the Bakers love and all the best in the world.
WONDER WOMAN #29 — Serious business from Azzarello/Chiang/Wilson right here, as what initially seems like the big showdown takes a left turn when one of the more well-rounded members of our supporting cast reclaims her mantle. Amidst the seething might of Kirby Krackle, naturally! The whole gang is reunited and it turns out that this was all merely prologue for the major battle looming on the horizon. To say anything more would be to spoil the fun of letting this book punch you in the face repeatedly. Highly recommended!
SUPERMAN UNCHAINED #6 — The business really starts to kick in here as our heroes do nothing less than prevent a total nuclear strike of every tactical nuclear warhead in the world with the aid of some reverse-engineered Kryptonian crystal technology. That is a pretty serious little hunk of Earthstone! This issue cranks things up on the creative side a little bit more than we’ve seen from the past couple of singles, of course Lee/Williams/Sinclair continue to absolutely murder every single panel, but the first-person Clark narration that we all took as a given when it was announced that Snyder would be writing this character hits me with a bit more resonance and seems like more of a bull’s-eye this time out than it has here in the last little bit. This is really going to make one blistering single-sitting read when the whole thing is collected.
AMERICAN VAMPIRE: SECOND CYCLE #1 — Pearl & Skinner return as Snyder/Albuquerque come roaring back from their hiatus stronger than ever. Both men have really elevated their game here. The idea to have Pearl running her own underground railroad for vampire children in the sixties is almost as cool as Skinner operating out of a buried train car. And the art has possibly never looked better. It didn’t seem as though there was much room for improvement, but these guys are firing on all cylinders and turning in first-rate work. It should be a hell of a second half.
THE UNWRITTEN: APOCALYPSE #3 — We’re one issue closer to the end of the world and have orcs from Tolkien and tripods from Wells to help us along the way. And just when things can’t get any direr, here comes the spirit of Pullman channeled via some fresh ox-blood on a bunch of branches. Matters escalate quickly. It is hard to believe that they’ll be anything left for nine more issues’ worth of narrative, but if Carey/Gross have proven anything, it’s their ability to conjure up story long past the point that weaker souls would have typed “The End” and shuddered off into the remainder of their dreary mortal existences.
ZERO #6 — Of course I couldn’t run across this Francavilla cover and leave this soldier behind on the rack after getting slaughtered by that first trade, and I am glad that I did not, as this is an indispensable episode that deserves weeks of consideration and rereading before the next installment is available to us. I’ve never heard of Vanesa del Rey but of course she brings the justice like every one of her predecessors on this book. The setting this time out is none other than the Large Hadron Collider, where our hero comes face to face with his ostensible nemesis who bookends the adventure with a parable about spooked Soviet artillery horses triggering a phase shift from frozen lake into supercooled watery death that is clearly a metaphor for some kind of transformation or supercollider particle death that he willingly undergoes at issue’s end. Del Rey’s final pages depicting the inside of the chamber are exceptional, bringing to mind Kirby and Byrne machinery but in a scratchier, looser style that is very much her own while also being reminiscent of Murphy’s work on JOE THE BARBARIAN. Really glad to have this issue while also feeling the diametric opposite to have run into the wall and caught up with everybody else, waiting another month or however long it takes until #7. This issue suggests that Kot has plenty of mind-bending Ellis/Hickman bleeding-edge science waiting in the wings and that espionage spy-thriller and a story of post-apocalyptic survival are only the first two genres on a long list that this series will be mining.
SEX CRIMINALS #5 — The haunting specter of Kegelface! This final issue of the first volume is a very dense read. I couldn’t believe it when I went back and counted only twenty pages. We’re finally all caught up, various backstories fully exposited, Suze & Jon captured and finally escaped and running off into the next volume. Fraction continues to lay down solid character beats throughout; two people walking around having a conversation is still terribly compelling. And the Chipper Zdarsky maintains the very high bar he has set for himself on art. The lines, so clean! The colors, so much with the popping! It’s no great wonder that this book is a breakout success and everybody’s freaking out over it. Such an entertaining unflinching blast of unique. And the best letters column going, hands down. Which, of course, “hands down” sounds all sexy now. “Nailed it!”
PROPHET #43 — It’s not quite all-hands-on-deck, but we’ve got six guys on art to chronicle the montage backstory of Hiyonhoiagn, which pulls off the neat trick of coming off both as alien and outside the realm of terrestrial experience as it ought to but also completely relatable to us earthbound folk. I love the horizontal panel that’s a straight Image nineties flashback of Badrock in his Rib Bib looking across the table at Troll. It really brings home how far this crew has pushed these characters, a stunning thing to have gotten to observe these past couple of years. I was also a fan of the shell-walled arena of death. And anyone who complains that the main feature is not worth the $3.99 alone, not even counting how wrong they are, should look no further than “Pieces,” the five-page backup by Daniel Warren Johnson and Doug Garbark. These have always been solid but really cranked up lately, I’ve moved up to almost looking forward to them as much as the headliner. They’re consistently these really tight, moving short pieces by people I’ve never heard of. Quite the package, this. I think I heard we’re calling it a day with #45. Can it be? That would be a shame, but they’ve certainly succeeded on a creative level with this title past even the most optimistic projections.
ROCKET GIRL #4 — Drunk Commissioner Gomez probably needs his own book. Or just a recurring strip in the back of this one. We need to make that happen. Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclair continue to deliver on the greatness implicit in the relatively simple premise of teen-jetpack-cop-travels-back-in-time-to-save-future. I mean, I guess there are plenty of ways to mess that up, but they certainly haven’t so far. This is still roaring good fun. I love the shot of Dayoung crashing up through the floor of Penn Station. And that last panel with Gomez at the gates is quite gripping in its own right. Now that her lead-time has expired, I hope that Ms. Reeder takes as long as she needs to put as much care into these pages as she likes. We will wait for the quality.
UNCANNY X-MEN #019.NOW — I love the stupidity of throwing a great big #1 up in the corner even though we all see that this is really issue number “nineteen-now.” The meetings where this shit gets decided must be channeling straight Monty Python. I certainly like to pretend that John Cleese is the driving force behind all of the ridiculous decisions that The Big Two like to regularly crank out. At any rate! Bendis continues to hit his mark and Chris Bachalo’s incredible and idiosyncratic layouts and panel-work elevate this into one of the best books on the stands. There’s also a pretty solid artistic uniformity at work throughout these pages given the fact that there are five inkers. And of course if your Bachalo doesn’t have time to color every page, Jose Villarrubia should always be your first call. Yet another beautiful issue.
NEW AVENGERS #015 — Man, I wonder how much lead-time Simone Bianchi had to crank out this many interior pages in a row, was definitely only looking for him on one or a maximum of two of these issues. Hickman is really laying some serious groundwork here, biding his time and building a threat on a scale that we haven’t really seen before from this publisher, an infinite number of worlds and dead heroes. It feels like this cycle is about to come to an end, though. After all, there’s only so many times we can watch other Reed Richardses get shot into the heart of the sun. I really can’t wait to see what kind of a monster climax this is building to, though I’d say we’re still at least quite a few months off from hitting it.
DAREDEVIL #001 — New #1! Perfect jumping-on point! Waid/Samnee/Rodriguez show up and give us nothing more than more of the same, quality storytelling featuring the character distilled down to his essence with pitch-perfect narration and plot escalation throughout. This very much feels like a season-premiere, we’re thrown into the action in medias res with no lingering subplots whatsoever until a question-mark on the last page that will of course keep us coming back for more. Here’s hoping the new #1 boosts sales, because this superhero book certainly deserves a massive audience. They should all be this tremendous.
BEST OF WEEK: NEMO: THE ROSES OF BERLIN—Nothing but tightly focused sequential destruction here from start to finish. The folks who skipped the backmatter on HEART OF ICE last year because there weren’t enough pretty pictures definitely missed an important installment as we barrel right on in to the next adventure building upon the joining of the houses of Dakkar & Robur. Reading this volume through the first time, I was so fully immersed that I wasn’t able to pick up on exactly how lean this thing is. You’ve got that first page of German (that I’ve really got to get a translation of because you know Moore’s got them just straight up giving away the salient plot details right there at the top), the next two pages are a single gore-drenched splash depicting just another day at the office for our heroine and hero with a mere two panels more than enough to set up their status quo and establish the ease of their relationship with one another, that third panel of dialogue that throws everything out of whack, and by the end of Page Four, we’ve got the entire premise for this adventure pretty well established. Janni & Jack’s little girl and her husband have been shot down and taken prisoner by Chaplin’s Hitler analogue Herr Hynkel in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and now they must go in and kill everybody in order to save her. Terribly straightforward, as far as these things go. Kevin O’Neill’s designs for the city are staggering. There’s no telling how many words actually went into describing some of these splash pages, but there are a few occasions this time out when, for the final pages, Moore gives Todd Klein the day off and lets O’Neill just rip it apart without any dialogue whatsoever. The architecture is evocative of not only Lang but also what might have happened if the oppressive worlds of Orwell and Huxley crashed into Lang’s jagged edges, all with a healthy dose of the kind of nightmarish concrete Hell that Anton Furst’s Gotham City brought to life in Burton’s first Batman movie. And Ben Dimagmaliw hangs with every nook and cranny, supplying a subtle palette that brings the lines to life without ever really calling attention to itself. Moore manages to work in plenty of characterization along the way but the emphasis in this installment, as was the case last time out, is forward momentum. Adventure! The casualty that occurs shortly past the halfway mark is the most efficient piece of character-dispatching since Wash was a leaf on the wind, in one swift stroke, the stakes are raised to their greatest possible level. Everyone can die at any time, and I even found myself questioning if I even correctly read way back when that this would be a trilogy because everybody was surely about to be dead with the next turn of the page. There’s an immediacy and urgency there that is simply not possible to convey to the reader in monthly corporate comics. There are those who think that LEAGUE has declined since dive-bombing out of its original premise/cast after the second volume, that it has mutated into something too self-referential and Ouroborosian to be entertaining to anyone but the most snobbish literary intellectual. I can see how some folks felt a little bit left in the dust when we trap-doored from H.G. Wells to the multi-media/genre insanity of THE BLACK DOSSIER but feel as though each and every volume has been an improvement on what has gone before. These NEMO one-shots initially sounded like they would be nothing more than a diverting tangent away from our sole remaining original protagonist but they have not only fleshed out our amalgamated mythos in the first half of the twentieth century to a great deal but given us a new lead character as compelling as any who have come before, all the more fascinating due to the fact that she is practically an original character, the template of Jenny Diver from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera grafted onto the Nemo legacy.
For all the glory of the fifty-six page sequential adventure, I almost found the backmatter more compelling. Moore clearly adores writing these, you can feel it in the care that he lavishes upon every sentence. The third paragraph opens with: “In the silver drench of a full moon, our craft began a roaring drop towards the curdled masses of the Riallaro Archipelago's famed fogbanks, billows parting like ethereal spun sugar to reveal a startlingly space-age and electrically illuminated view of Princess Janni Dakkar's brigand nation from above.” That is some gorgeous prose, right there.
Fifteen years after publishing their first issue, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill are still roaring ahead great guns and offering one of the most consistently entertaining while intellectually stimulating stories in any medium. Let the long wait until the next volume begin.