January 21, 2014

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Single Minded for 1/15/2014: Sal's Inking is Black Dynamite, Image Gets an EGO, and More

One of these weeks I'll get this going a bit sooner! Just can't seem to break out of the cycle of reading behind lately. It was a bit of a strange week, with IDW getting most of my reading time. There's a few things I've fallen behind on, and I hope to be able to get those out the door soon. So many good comics coming out makes it hard to keep track of everything.

So what was on my mind enough to write about from last week's single issue series? We'll begin with a book I might have passed on, except that Our Pal Sal Buscema is back inking a book! If I had to list my five favorite Marvel artists from the Bronze Age, Sal is pretty close to the top of my list. He was incredibly prolific and versatile, and when his pencils aren't butchered by the inker, you can pick him out every time. The artist of some of the best Spider-Man and Hulk stories, Sal actually prefers to ink, and pretty much does that exclusively these days. It's great to see him working again, and this project is perfect for him, as I'll talk about momentarily...

Black Dynamite 1
Written by Brian Ash
Illustrated by Ron Wimberly, Sal Buscema, and JM Ringuet
Published by IDW

Black Dynamite is the best at what he does, and that's attracting trouble! When Alex Haley speaks out about how damaging it is to have Black Dynamite around, the hard-hitting hero takes to the road to keep the peace in this start to a story that mixes Blackspoitation jokes with commentary on comic book violence.

I'm always a bit cautious about stories like this. It's a very fine line between tweaking the nose of an old genre and just throwing up racist caricatures and calling them a parody. But the original movie was created entirely by African American performers and Ash was a writer for Aaron McGruder's Boondocks TV series, so I think we're in safe territory. Combined with the fact that the jokes are at the expense of Dynamite's bragging and exaggerations, not his skin color. His dialogue is typical 70s super hero corny, but other than a few slang tweaks, this could pretty much be Green Arrow, Tony Stark, or any number of womanizing characters.

Ron Wimberly has a very angular pencil style that makes him a perfect fit with Buscema's inks. His layouts are a bit more exaggerated than necessary, especially in the action scenes, but he nails the feel of a Bronze Age Marvel book. His panels all come at the reader from odd angles, even when it's just two people talking. We get things like a close-up on Dynamite's face instead of the man holding a gun to his head, who is shown to be as far away from the reader's eye as possible. In another scene, the community gangs up on a vulnerable Dynamite to verbally abuse him. Our feature character, slump shoulder, looks away from a frame of angry people, wielding canes and angry looks. It's great panel work, and the heavy inks of Sal's pen enhance key moments and reaction shots, giving them a fierceness fans of the Marvel stalwart's work will instantly recognize but doesn't take away from what makes Wimberly's pencils work.

JM Ringuet wraps up the artistic package by making this look like a 70s comic, even putting an age tint on the panel borders, clinching the look. With some great comedic moments mixed with a plot that finds Dynamite in a newer, bigger problem, this one looks like it's going to be a ton of fun, pointing out genre flaws without making them worse. A good companion to Alex deCampi's Grindhouse series.

Army of Dr. Moreau 3
Written by David Walker
Illustrated by Carl Sciacchitano and Sara Machajewski
Published by Monkeybrain

The varied nature of humanity is on display as the Allies work to find out just what the Nazis are up to in an issue that does more set-up work that's building into quite an explosive confrontation.

After opening with another flashback, this time to Dr. Moreau's mad reasoning for his experiments, we move quickly to see just how far the Nazis have perverted this laudable (if misguided) goal. The Americans and Brits are still clueless, but Prentiss gets it, which creates quite an unstable dynamic, even within the alliance. It's a bit gut-wrenching to realize just how much man's interference is costing the humanoid animals, thanks largely in part to the last-page splash, which features an entire group wiped out.

The art on this one gets stronger with every outing. From the first page, with a bloody and partially shadowed Dr. Moreau discussing his work to the casual contempt for life of the Nazi doctor, who shoots on a whim to instill fear and terror, the visuals for the series do an amazing job here of conveying the message that, just as in the original book by Wells, things are about to go very, very wrong. The panel construction this time out is really well done, with purposeful repetition, angled perspective, and other tricks that help to get past some long talking scenes by Walker.

Army of Dr. Moreau still has an issue with a bit too much exposition, but the art is finding ways to minimize the impact of a wall of words and now that we're about to have contact, it should be time to let these powder kegs to start exploding. This one's definitely looking good, both in terms of the art and its story potential.

EGOs 1
Written by Stuart Moore
Illustrated by Gus Storms
Published by Image Comics

When there's a threat no one else in the Galaxy can handle, they call the Avengers Earth Galactic Operatives. Or at least they did, until the team disbanded. Now when a major threat returns, one of its founding members needs to find new heroes fast, creating a set-up that takes the entire issue to pay off, but is well worth it.

Moore is a long-time comics veteran, and he shows it, not allowing the need to impress quickly to block his plot. This one, to be honest, feels rather pedestrian for most of its length, with an unknown narrator discussing how screwed up the situation is, how bad things will be, and so on. We get an origin for the team and see that the main character tries to hide his flaws but it won't work, etc. It's really nothing new--until you get to the fact that the narrator is his estranged son and the punchline to how the dad is going to solve the hero problem ties everything we've seen so far together in an explosive bow.

Now this is a trick that can only work once. If Moore tries to shock at the end of every issue after marking time, it's going to grow old quickly. But I really liked it here, with Moore taking advantage of the serial nature of the story for once to use the last page cliffhanger effectively.

Gus Storms's art is in the Frank Quietly vein, with a lot of light linework combining to form a complete picture. He's not as detailed, however, with the color processing softening everything, which is not a choice that's to my personal taste. Stories with massive death tolls do best when given a gritty sense of reality. In this case, Storms' almost pastel colors and light touch make it feel like there's no gravity to what's going on. Overall, though, this is one worth checking out, but be sure to read it to the end.

Archer and Armstrong 17
Written by Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Khari Evans, ChrisCross, David Baron, and Allen Passalaqua
Published by Valiant Entertainment

All Sect breaks loose when Archer's plan takes them to an underwater death trap and he considers his options as this arc ends a little too neatly for my liking.

I'm a really big fan of Van Lente, and this series in particular, but I think he and Valiant got caught in the "trade trap" on this one. Instead of letting this epic battle get crazier and more ridiculous, it felt like this issue had to cram an epic battle among the factions, Armstrong's potential mortality (which is a big plot point but gets kinda lost here), Archer's relationship to Mary-Maria, and Project Rising Spirit's ire all into a little over twenty pages.

Not even Jack Kirby could manage a feat like that, and it hurts the story. We're rushed from scene to scene and speech to speech, and the partial unification of the Sects doesn't even really reflect on the fact that not all of them did so, because we needed to end in four issues and begin the new arc, a crossover with Bloodshot. Sometimes it's better to just let a book exist than try to shoe-horn it into the rest of things.

That said, there are still some great moments. Armstrong's as witty and kinda-clueless as ever. Van Lente's handling of the different factions is strong, even if all-too-brief. When Archer realizes he's made an error, the reaction and implications really shine. I just wish all of this had been given room to breathe. It's not helped by the continued artistic issues. Khari Evans and ChrisCross aren't a good match, and the results dull key moments in the script. Van Lente relies on his artists to aid in punchline delivery and he's failed here multiple times. Combined with coloring that's designed to show they're in a dark place but just muddies the waters--no pun intended--this was also the least strong issue from a visual perspective.

I was worried about how Archer and Armstrong would fare when tied into the rest of Valiant, and this didn't allay my fears any. I'd hate to lose the tone of this book for the sake of closer continuity. I'll be watching closely to see how the crossover goes, but this one is falling off the rails a bit. It's still very good, but not the slam dunk I'm used to.

Unity 3
Written by Matt Kindt
Illustrated by Doug Braithwaite and Brian Reber
Published by Valiant Entertainment

The Unity team gets a gift from Russia with hate as Livewire unlocks hidden potential and Harada makes a power play as Matt Kindt continues to show his skills as a storyteller and Valiant keeps up the pressure on its characters.

Using Livewire as the focal character, Kindt lets us see Harada from the eyes of one who owes him so much, which makes her ultimate decisions really resonate. Most of this issue is clearing out the crises from the first two, and the desperation of the situation gets a lot of mileage. The Unity team is stuck between the rock of Aric and the hardplace of the Russian decision to attack anyway, and only quick thinking will save them all. The problem is--that's not on Harada's agenda. How Livewire handles this is the key to the story, with the other characters mostly along for the ride. She's developing into a team leader, pushing away from Harada, and that's fascinating to watch, because it's entirely organic.

I didn't care for the art as much this time as the first two issues. Cramped inside a sinking spaceship, Braithwaite is unable to properly take advantage of his strengths artistically. He's best in the scenes where X-O Livewire is preventing disaster, using strong panel layouts to make the action as dramatic as possible. Indoors, however, despite some clever perspective decisions, things felt too cramped. The processing, which can be an issue with Valiant, didn't help, either, making the colors too dark and murky, which is realistic--but kinda hard to read for details.

Unity has been a real treat so far, continually upping the stakes. How they handle what comes next is going to really show if this one can keep the momentum up. I just hope we get a more open-ended feel so Braithwaite can shine the way Kindt's scripts already do.

X-Files: Conspiracy 1
Written by Paul Crilley
Illustrated by John Stanisci and Stephen Downer
Published by IDW

The truth is out there, and it involves rumors of ghost-hunters, giant turtles and shape-changing robots in a story that, well, follows an IDW trend that isn't their best.

Individually, IDW does some of the best licensed comic work around. I'm always praising their work. But then they get the idea to do something like this, and it's just problematic. The X-Files are a serious entity with a constant feeling that there are things out there that humans cannot comprehend and can barely handle when faced off against them. If there are ninja turtles and friendly sentient alien robots around--Mulder and Scully can just sit back, relax, and hand it off to the superheroes. Putting them together like this is a bad idea.

The biggest shame is that this one could easily be a self-contained story. The Lone Gunmen discover news from the future, which ties into a case Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate. A disease is killing people in horrific ways, and threatens to engulf the globe. But apparently, this requires going to the Ghostbusters for some reason, and I while I'm hoping for the best, I don't see a way this ends well. It's going to take some careful storytelling to make it work and requires the reader not to think too hard about the implications, and that's going to be a tough sell.

I've gotten used to Walsh's take on Mulder and Scully's work, so seeing them in a more realistic style with hyper-detailing (like individual eyebrows) is a bit jarring. Stanisci does a solid job with the plot, abetting Crilley's jokes and keeping the action moving. His talking scenes stay varied, moving characters around as needed to make it feel fluid.

We'll see where this one goes, and honestly, I liked the opening salvo. I just have major reservations about what you do to characters once the "Superman and Batman live in the same world" genie is out of the bottle within the X-Files world. We'll see what the next part of the crossover brings.

Popeye Classics 18
Written and Illustrated by Bud Sagendorf
Published by IDW

Everyone's favorite sailor gets boxed in by his father and lets the cat out of the bag in a series of really strong reprints that feature Popeye as sitcom straightman and stay far away from troublesome areas.

I really love that we see so many reprints of early comics these days, but I had a problem with a no-context racist story that they reprinted in issue 17. Fortunately, there's none of that going on this time, and we get to see Sagendorf at his comedic best. In his hands, Popeye is an ordinary guy who ends up doing extraordinary things by virtue of his supporting cast, and it's a joy to read.

In the first story, Pappy shanghais his son into holding a box of some importance. While Popeye waits for his father's return, he offends Olive, ignores insults (until they get to the sea, because that's just too much) and generally takes abuse, all to discover value is the eye of the beholder. Then he's woken up in the middle of the night to take care of a friend's cat--which turns out to be a circus lion. As Popeye tries to catsit, the situations become increasingly silly, with the sailor man taking it all in stride. The final Popeye story finds him trying to be John Henry and getting thwarted by a hermit with a grudge. Even Wimpy gets into the act, squaring off against a mechanical duck and getting the best of its owner in a final panel gag that's as perfect as it is inevitable.

Sagendorf's Popeye is earnest and helpful, with a mop of stray spiked hairs no compunction about punching when the time calls for it. The visuals here go from being perfectly straight to comic exaggeration (like the old boulder bounces back on the villains gag), depending on the needs of the plot. He's probably the Popeye most recognize on sight, as I believe the color cartoons relied heavily on his designs. These are a lot of fun and fans of the character--or newspaper gag strips--will find a lot to like in this issue.