December 12, 2013

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Single Minded for 12/11/2013: Monkeybrain Hits a Triple and More

Okay, this is more like it! The goal will be to have this run as close to Wednesday as possible, barring work that pays the bills instead. Single minded is where I sit down with some of the single issue comics that are new this week and share my thoughts on them. This is for short thoughts only--when I need to go longer, such as with an anthology series (Hey Eerie #4, I'm looking right at you!), I'll pop that out into its own post.

Let's begin the column with a series that has been at the top of my favorites list since it started, Archer and Armstrong...

Archer and Armstrong 16
Written by Fred Van Lente
Art by Khari Evans, CrissCross, David Baron, and Allen Passalaqua
Valiant Entertainment

Earth falters while Armstrong burns off his hangover as the effects of the Sect Civil War take its toll. Archer has a plan, but the cost will be high in a storyline that stays a bit darker in tone but keeps its sharp wit.

Fred Van Lente has a careful tightrope to walk here, given that he's trying to go for a more serious story where the stakes are extremely high, yet fans of the book are expecting outrageous jokes and romping about--so much so that even Armstrong mentions in the dialogue that he misses the times when he and Archer were doing so. In order to make this work, he relies a lot on the visual work of the artists to keep the tone light even as everything is going to hell around the characters.

This works well when Khari Evans is on art duties. As I've noted before when I've talked about this book on Newsarama, Evans is another in a long line of artists able to match Van Lente's style well. Whether it's the ever-changing emoticons on the heads of one of the factions or clashing the serious looks of the Sisterhood with Armstrong picking his nose and eating it, Evans knows just how to make this disconnect work.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for CrissCross's parts of the story. He's unable to give Archer and Armstrong unique looks from panel to panel, losing the facial reactions that are key to helping Van Lente's dialogue work. His layouts aren't as dynamic as Evans, either, doing the job but nothing more. It's very pedestrian, and while that might not be so noticeable on its own, when you match it up with Evans, there's a clear gap.

Even so, I love this book to death, and seeing the various Sects in small cameos is a lot of fun, and keeps the coloring team busy. Van Lente manages to make even the action scenes light-hearted with his script and it's all pulling together nicely, as we wait to see who Archer is playing a con game with--the Sects or Armstrong. This book is still my favorite from Valiant, but it's getting a lot of competition lately.

The Double Life of Miranda Turner #2
Story by George Kambadais and Jamie S. Rich
Words by Rich, Art by Kambadais and Mike Toris
Monkeybrain

Miranda learns that superheroes often can't separate their two worlds in this first part of a story that features an acting troupe turning into monsters, with Miranda caught in the middle in a strong follow-up issue.

I wrote about the first issue when I was doing Monkeybrain on the Brain, and while this issue isn't quite as visually astounding as the first (the whole Lego blocks thing would be hard to top, anyway), it's still a great way to work in Miranda's characterization without slowing things down to a crawl. Miranda is going to need to learn that being a hero isn't about compartmentalizing and multi-tasking, and this is a good first step.

We won't know for sure until the next issue, but I'm pretty sure something is causing the actors to have their worst elements brought out in horrifying ways (greed, vanity, and so on), and it's going to be interesting to see if there's a fix for it, or if Kambadis and Rich are planning to have Miranda learn a hard lesson quickly.

As with the first issue, I really like Kambadis' character designs, and that cover is awesome. He's a little light on the background images, but makes up for it by really taking advantage of the ghostly nature of Miranda's sister to play with layouts and his normal style meshes well when faced with creating the exaggerated natures of the actors.

If the creators can keep the steady pace of issues going, Miranda Turner has the potential to be another big hit for Monkeybrain.

Unity 2
Written by Matt Kindt
Illustrated by Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber
Valiant Entertainment

With Harada's original plan in ashes, he'll need to take a more personal touch to keep X-O Manowar from turning Europe into a nuclear battlefield in a second issue that keeps up the pressure from a solid debut.

Matt Kindt wastes no time heating the tension to a boil. If Harada and his team--the injured but crafty Ninjack (doing a great job filling the role of the extraordinary human on the team), an also injured Eternal Warrior, and Livewire--can't get Aric to go away, then a catastrophe on a global scale is the only outcome. Faced with these odds, every movement by the team, from planning to have their ship explode to walking into a trap, has importance.

Kindt recognizes this, and makes the most of his premise. Nothing in this comic is wasted. Each action furthers the story, heightens the tension, or leads to the climax, where the actions of the new Unity team have a rather dramatic result. The battle against X-O, fought in the physical and mental planes, is amazingly well plotted and executed, with visuals from Braithwaite that capture the action, show the potential for confusion in the heat of the moment, but give the reader a clear picture of the outcome. When Livewire realizes the rules change, so does Braithwaite's presentation of the scene, moving from realistic to fantastical, as the powers of the mind kick in.

The best part of this one, though is the way Kindt has the team tackle X-O. The fact is, he's a 5 year old holding an automatic pistol, and the use of that to drive the entire storyline has been great so far. Combined with the strong art by Braithwaite and colors by Reber that enhance the story (making it realistic or ephemeral, bold or muted, as needed), this should be on any superhero fan's reading list.

The Army of Dr. Moreau
Written by David F. Walker
Art by Carl Sciacchitano and Sara Machajewski
Monkeybrain

While a dubious crew sails off to investigate rumors of a Nazi plot, Germany plans an army of warriors the likes of which the world has never seen in a second issue that moves this story along nicely.

I enjoyed issue one, and I'm happy to say that this sophomore effort addresses a few of the concerns I had, most notably its lack of action. After a few pages of talking on a boat, we move right to scenes of the depraved Nazi scheme at work, with creatures designed to look like Frankenstein's creation, if the mad scientist had been a furry. Sciacchitano really nails the horror inherent in the idea with a depiction that isn't gory or violence. It's the nature of the creation that does the trick, and that's good storytelling, because then the bloody skeleton of the man they devoured really pops into the reader's mind, sealing the deal.

We get a third player in this drama, and how the remaining creatures from the first set of experiments deal with encountering a brand of humanity that makes Dr. Moreau look like Ghandi is going to be interesting. There's a lot of room for this story to grow, and it's well worth picking this one up now to see how it starts.

Real West 3
Written and Illustrated by Stan Lynde
Monkeybrain

This Western anthology continues its showcasing a wide variety of styles by turning to daily strip writer/artist Stan Lynde to tell a previously unpublished story of one of his newspaper characters.

Once again taking advantage of the fact that digital means you can do anything you'd like, anthologist Chris Schweizer turns to a cartoonist I'm unfamiliar with to provide a story that mixes tropes with a modern feel that gives them the respect you wouldn't see in, say, a 1960s John Wayne movie.

The main character, Latigo, is a half-breed who steps between worlds just a few years after the Civil War. He was created for a daily strip that ran when I was little and didn't have enough commercial success to warrant getting a reprint (or maybe we just haven't hit the late 1970s era yet for publishers to mine). In this story, he tells the tale of a rich man who is determined to hunt big game, but refuses to respect the wishes of his Native American hosts, and falls prey to an ending that reminded me positively of an EC Weird Western, though without the gore that would have accompanied it in that venue.

Lynde, who passed away earlier this year, reminds us that daily newspaper art used to be gorgeous and a thing to pour over on a Sunday morning. His work shows detail and fine linework that's a lost art now that the comics are reduced to comically small proportions. The characters have strong jaws and features that distinguish them, using visual clues to indicate their nobility--or lack thereof. Long shots and close-ups are used to great effect, as Lynde varies the pace but manages to make each strip have its own weight and place in the narrative, just as though we were reading this a little bit at a time each day.

Real West 3's story isn't amazing and won't win any awards for innovation. But seeing a former newspaper cartoonist show off his chops on a solid tale that doesn't insult its subjects was a lot of fun for me, and I imagine those of the right age will easily agree.

Indestructible 1
Written by Jeff Kline
Illustrated by Javi Garon, Salvi Garcia, and Alejando Sanchez
IDW

A case of mistaken ability drives the plot of this story that stretches credulity a bit too far, even for a superhero parody comic.

Gregory, a typical loser, gets dumped on a date by a girl who is something of a superhero groupie (and may have powers of her) and ends up stopping a robbery by taking a bullet, Theodore Roosevelt-style. Now he's wanted by everyone for his powers, with results both good and bad.

This one suffers from having too much going on. We have a woman getting out of prison, a worship of superheroes, the promise of a superhero team, another woman flying out of the ocean, and typical loser geek guy humor. Writer Jeff Kline's heart may be in the right place, and his idea could be really going somewhere, but because of the scatter-shot focus of the first issue, it's hard to know exactly what we're going for or supposed to focus on.

If the focus is Gregory, that's going to be a problem. He's not interesting in the slightest and I'm sorry, even in universe, his ruse isn't going to survive long against a smell test. So unless the plan is to have his inability to do anything exploited, this one's just not going to work, and even then, it's going to take a ton of hand-waving and some really strong comedic moments to keep readers interested.

From what we see in this first issue, I'm not sure there's enough here to make that work. The art from Garon and Garcia relies extremely heavily on the reaction shots, but since we get so many of them, they stop having the desired effect. Their work reminds me a bit of Todd Nauck, though less restrained. It works fine, but cannot make up for the weak script. I'd probably pass on this one for now, to see where it's going. 

X-Files Season Ten 7
Written by Joe Harris
Illustrated by Elena Cassagrande, Silvia Califano, Arianna Florean, Azzurra M. Florean, and Valentina Cuomo
IDW

Mulder gets a little too close to his quarry in this closing issue of a two-parter showing the series is in good hands even when the story isn't assisted on by Chris Carter.

Balancing the things that Mulder and Scully know with the hidden truths they may never fully understand, Joe Harris weaves us in and out of narrative that is absolutely creepy to me because of the type of creature they're up against. His depiction of the Russian approach to the threat--ruthless but realistic--isn't new (we saw in the book version of World War Z, for example), it works well here, as do the regrets of the man who saves Mulder but was unable to help his friend.

The art, unfortunately, is a bit uneven and doesn't do a lot to help Harris's plot. I like Cassagrande as a creator who can tell a competent story, and she does that here, but with the exception of a few panels, there's not the same sense of urgency and desperation in the art that Harris' dialogue calls for. The good news is that despite having five folks working on the art, you can't see the seams, so that's definitely a plus.

It's really nice to have the X-Files back, even if it's just in comics, and I'm curious to see if we stick with shorter stories like this or longer arcs as the series moves along.