April 21, 2014

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Single Minded Catch-Up: for 2/26/14: Weak Week for Remender, Strong Week for Turtles

Welcome to the first of my Single Minded Catch-Up posts, in which I go back and talk about books that aren't exactly as new as they were when I was supposed to write this up.

Normally, the cupboard is a bit bare at the end of the month, but this one featured a ton of new #1 issues, making for a rather long column. So there's a ton to talk about, whether it's new Gail Simone, old Charles Schulz, or some series that could be sleeper hits for you. All in all, there's 11 books in here, because as we all know from my 'Rama work, I'm never more at home than when saying a few things about a lot of books.

Let's begin with one of the two Rick Remender books, which had an amazing issue one.

Issue two? Not so much.

Deadly Class 2
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge
Published by Image Comics

Marcus learns about his new home in a series of cliché set pieces and the amazing artwork can only do so much to save this second issue that fell flat for me after a promising first issue.

This might have been the most disappointing book I’ve read recently, mostly because the first issue had so much action and potential. But unfortunately, instead of building on that steady, moving beat, Remender opts instead to methodically take Marcus through life at the assassin school, taking pains to hit every single stereotypical school trope possible: The wise headmaster, the racist hicks, the hot-blooded, lust-filled Latinos, aloof and mysterious Japanese folks (and form the romantic interest, because we need an exotic beauty), the outcasts who break the rules, the homophobic jock, and the good natured wimp who befriends the main character.

That would be fine as far as it goes (I’m no stranger to reading comics that revisit themes), but I can’t find anything new happening with them here. We could easily have ended with the line about “the dagger they put in your back is real” and moved forward, using our vast prior knowledge of such scenarios to fill in the gaps while we move into the more interesting parts (like the classes themselves, Marcus’s object of revenge, and what happens when a student fails an assignment). Instead, this one just beats us over the head with how hard it’s going to be for Marcus, who doesn’t fit in anywhere, something it only takes about three pages to actually express.

The Craig and Loughridge art team, which I praised extensively in my review of issue one, do the best they can with the story they’re given here. The coloring tricks that worked so well in issue one are present again, and have the same effect, setting the mood and place for the reader and enhancing Craig’s panel structures and figure placements. There’s a greater use of blacks here, adding a nice edge. Craig’s character designs fit Remender’s stereotypes well (another reason we don’t need the endless exposition scenes—the art tells more than the dialogue can) and he gives them a lot of great body language and expression.

Still, this one hit a sophomore slump pretty badly. I’m hoping for better in issue three, but if it’s more of the same, this one might be out of the rotation.

My Little Pony Friends Forever 2
Written by Jeremy Whitley
Illustrated by Tony Fleecs and Lauren Perry
Published by IDW

Three ponies try hard to make their mark, but get into trouble when their assistant is a trickster with powers, leading to pages of parodies in Princeless writer Jeremy Whitley’s My Little Pony debut.
I thought I was done reviewing MLP comics, but here comes another of my favorite writers, following on the heels of Alex de Campi’s series-opening one-shot. This one was a little harder for me to follow along with, because I have zero familiarity with the characters so I wasn’t able to fully grasp the backstory.

Once I got the premise of the unaffiliated ponies and their desire to get a cutie mark and that Discord was a Loki/Q style character possibly trying to be a better creature, the story is a lot of fun. After briefly showing the ponies’ failures, Whitley has Discord take up the challenge of putting them in increasingly convoluted scenarios, trying to figure out what they’re good at.

Line artist Tony Fleecs matches Whitley step for step at this point, easily switching from generic sports scenarios to a rather familiar spaceship to a series of panels that feature everything from waling the plank to hysterically cute rogue cops. I continue to be impressed with how the artists on this series can manage to make the ponies do things and act humanoid while still keeping them looking very much like the iconic toys that the book is created to help sell. (I will ding Fleecs for drawing a d8 when the dialogue calls for two d6, however.)

Jeremy’s ear for dialogue that serves him so well on his signature series also plays out here. He’s able to write lines that are fun, but turn things a bit serious when needed, such as the wrap-up scene, where the characters discuss what they’ve learned, a hallmark of writing a series for kids. There’s still plenty of jokes for the adults in the room, though, and the overall plot and story are very much all-ages in the best sense of the word.

Generally speaking, I’m not going to tell you to go read a MLP comic, but for the second month in a row, I’m going to ask you to make an exception for this one, another solid entry in this anthology.

Furious 2
Written by Bryan JL Glass
Illustrated by Victor Santos
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Cadence tries to get ahead of her press as Furious, but a figure who seems to know her all-too-well looks dead set on ruining everything in another reflective issue about the nature of identity and redemption mixed with violence, heroics, and a realistic look at how cops would deal with a cape.

This is a very clever comic that's only getting better as it progresses. Though it can occasionally require a bit of page flipping to make sure you're on the right track, the idea of trying to make the world a better place when you did your part to ruin your share of it registers strongly. Mixing a bit of natural sexism with tongue in cheek media references (I caught those real twitter handles, guys!), Cadence's struggle is not only in controlling (and understanding) her powers but in trying to figure out her place. It's a fight she's been doing almost since birth, in poignant scenes that echo the familiar child-star disasters we know all-too-well.

Victor Santos' linework remains sharp, despite having to switch between past and present. His panel work here is extremely impressive, such as using a rifle scope view to portray some of the action or breaking things at odd angles, allowing the story to dictate the layouts. Some of the choices are a bit odd here and there, cutting off the main action, but overall, this innovative style serves the plot well and gives it a distinctive look compared to similar comics.

Furious is doing a good job with its deconstruction of the nature of being a hero, and the new element of either a split personality, clone, or some other antagonist with similar powers should prove interesting as we move into the next issue.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 31
Story by Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow, and Tom Waltz
Written by Tom Waltz
Illustrated by Sophie Campbell and Ronda Pattison
Published by IDW

The Turtles quiet respite breaks apart violently as their sanctuary is invaded and the fragile trusts built up may soon fall away as one of the quietly best comics out there keeps on being amazing.

After illustrating so many touching personal scenes, Campbell gets to show off that she's no slouch at drawing action, either--as those of us who read the Glory reboot know so well. Thanks to clever plotting by the creative trio that leaves the heroes unaware of the attack, when Shredder's new bird-themed warriors attack, it's devastating, putting the Turtles back on their heels. Sophie captures that perfectly, showing the team ready to fight but not on top of their game.

I've spoken extensively before about how much Campbell and Pattison bring to the table artistically, and this issue is no exception. From the playful fighting romance of Raphael and Alopex to April's Campbell-girl makeover, the issue has his stamp of design all over it, with Pattison's coloring bringing out the best in Sophie's work. But the best moment so far in the arc might be the look of betrayal in Raph's eyes when he believes Alopex was the cause of the ambush. His eyes grow wide, preparing to pounce, and letterer Shawn Lee pulls his words right out of the dialogue balloon, finishing the effect.

It's note perfect, and my only complaint is that this arc will soon be over, and we'll have to wait for more Campbell Turtle work. If you aren't reading this one, shame on you.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Utrom Empire 2
Written by Paul Allor
Illustrated by Andy Kuhn and Bill Crabtree
Published by IDW

The backstory of Krang and his people continues against a new fight for their survival, as alliances shift and twist in the deadly wind of this second issue.

As I noted for the first issue, this is one for the hard-core Turtles fans only. But if, like me, that includes you, then you are in for a treat, because Allor's writing here is some of his best. He's able to make Krang something of a sympathetic figure, even as his ruthlessness is on full display. The idea of his opposition to a grand empire at a young age cuts the reader like a knife when balanced against his current state. At the same time, Stockman's fly-self gets a slight twist, as the mad scientist tries to bring everything down around him and the Fugitoid is stuck in the middle.

Kuhn and Crabtree do a great job with keeping the visuals dancing back and forth between past and present, making both worlds come alive. Despite dealing with talking brains, robot bodies, and the odd dinosaur, Kuhn still manages to get emotions across with the posing of limbs, both real and artificial. Crabtree keeps things varied with an ever-changing color palette, shading the Utroms in a variety of pinks and purples.

This issue leaves everything in an upheaval, with a very real chance we may see an end to Krang's Dynasty. I've had a lot of fun reading this spin-off, which helps build a world thankfully (at least so far) immune to that upcoming disaster of a movie.

Edison Rex 14
Story by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver
Words by Roberson
Art by Culver and Stephen Downer
Published by Monkeybrain

A look behind the scenes of Edison Rex's new empire shows quite a few cracks in this breather issue that continues to show that Edison's world isn't as happy as he hopes it will be.

Split across several cut scenes is a main arc showing what it's like to be an ordinary henchman for one of Rex's lieutenants, focusing on two young women who bond over the difficulty of staying in uniform. We've seen low-level looks like this before elsewhere, so it's not quite as interesting as some of Roberson and Culver's past parallels. That could be partly because the point is to use them as a way to see the chinks in the armor, so even as we see them taking breaks or going out for drinks, the reader's thoughts are on how this plays out in the overall story.

Culver shines bouncing from place to place and character group to character group. He's easily able to show one page of L.A.R.V.A. in a romance pastiche then roll into a science division marching like automatons. There's no a lot for him to do visually here, but holding the disparate parts together is enough.

After a set-up issue like this, I'm hoping we move into a bigger story with the next issue.

Tomb Raider 1
Written by Gail Simone
Illustrated by Nicolas Daniel Selma, Juan Gedeon, and Michael Atiyeh
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Regrets? Lara Croft has more than a few, and they come back to haunt her in a rather morose opening to this new series that feels a bit too close to Simone's recent Batgirl work.

I want to note right away that I have no connection at all to the Tomb Raider games. As best as I can recollect, I never played it, even at a friend's house. So my impressions here are based solely on this as a comic, not as an adaptation.

And to be honest, while I really like Simone's work on Batgirl (when it's not stuck in a crossover) and especially on the new Red Sonja, this one didn't really grab me. What I do know about Croft is that she's an adventurer, kind of a female Indiana Jones. After a teasing, action-packed opening, most of the rest of the issue is spent with Lara internally beating herself up for a past event that haunts her and the rest of her team. While there's a crazy event that ends the issue and sets up a world of the supernatural for Lara to face, the middle is just a slog of morose regret. I've gotten plenty of that in Batgirl lately, thanks.

Selma doesn't help matters, drawing competently but without bringing any life to the proceedings. A perfect example is when Lara thinks she might have to kill a friend. Instead of showing the tension with a tight grasp on her pick, Selma shows her hand frozen in place above it. It's a passive gesture and the rest of the issue is similarly designed. Backgrounds fall in and out, struggles look posed instead of passionate, and it always feels like it was the moment before or after that the reader should see, instead of the one chosen by the artist.

I will give Selma props on one thing, however: His design for Croft makes her look like an athletic woman, someone who probably played sports and would be at home swimming in the Olympics. This is not the improbably chested pixel person of the games*, and that's a good thing.

Because this is Simone, I'll give it some time to work. But honestly, I was disappointed all around, especially for a title that was hyped up.

The Remains 1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by AC Zamudio and Carlos Nicolas Zamudio
Published by Monkeybrain

A strange man comes to an ordinary family farm and causes trouble of the supernatural variety in this opening salvo of a horror story that uses some familiar tropes quite well.

The thing about horror is that it isn't so much about creating something new as it is finding a way to use the things that scare us in a way that's entertaining and engaging. It's very rare for something to be completely unique (Madame Frankenstein being the exception that proves the rule), so the key is to see how apply the ideas and concepts of horror to your particular project.

In this case, Bunn uses the child protagonist to tell a story that she's managed to survive, but only after extreme pain, which the comic will show for us, piece by piece. After setting up how normal her world was before the change, we go straight to an incredibly creepy drifter who the narrator immediately distrusts but the father feels they need. It's not long before something kinda creepy in its own right (giant, hungry rats) gets worse as the rise from the dead in the first sign that something's wrong.

All of this is captured in great, period-feeling detail by AC Zamudio, whose work I liked when I saw it in Monkeybrain's Real West #1. Given a longer piece to work with, she applies the same touches of light and shadow, alternating goodness with menace. The aging, ailing father looks a bit like Pa Kent while the design for the villain, Cole, is pure menace. His long face and leering, toothy grin, makes it clear he'll be trouble, but in true horror tradition, only the girl can see it. The backgrounds make it clear that this is a family who are just getting by, with buildings that are slightly run down, adding to the overall feeling.

If you are a horror fan, this is well worth checking out. As per usual, Monkeybrain's signature quality shines through.

Black Science 4
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Matteo Scalera and Dean White
Published by Image Comics

Grant is getting what he deserves but it's another team member who pays the price as this time-lost group forms a poster child for dysfunction in a brilliantly drawn issue that's lagging badly in the scripting.

Ward is the star of the show here, doing his best in a shitty situation to keep everyone alive, even Grant. He shows a level of courage and dedication that sets him apart from the rest, which makes his final fate all the more tragic, even though you know it's coming from the start. People like Ward are the cannon fodder lesser men like Grant and his boss Kadir use to get ahead.

It would be a great set piece--except that Remender gets Stan Lee disease and gives Ward an unnecessary narration that states the obvious and pulls away from the drama and wonder that Scalera and White bring to the proceedings. From an opening sequence that pits technologically advanced Aztecs against falling bombs from German airplanes to an awesome decapitation that features some of the best speed lines to heighten the vanishing point I've seen in some time, this might be the best issue yet from a visual perspective.

Scalera's facial expressions are some of his best, with the sharp, angular lines creating exaggerations that fit the characters' sharply defined natures (even if their words and actions are pretty stereotypical here). Ward's determination and Kadir's cowardice are on full display, thanks in large part to the character placement and frequent use of tight looks created by the art team. White's color work here manages to make things look dark and rainy but keep everything clear enough to see, with a range of shades that blend together nicely.

The best parts of Black Science so far are the fantastic creatures and situations that the team finds themselves in. That's enough for me, but as with Deadly Class, I am hoping the writing portion of the creative team steps it up a notch before this one also bogs down. These are some great visuals, and they deserve stronger art to go with them.

Peanuts 16
Written by Jeff Dyer, Nat Gertler, Vicki Scott, and Charles Schulz
Illustrated by Scott Jeralds, Justin Thompson, Robert Page, Paige Braddock, Andy Hirsch, Lisa Moore, Art Roche, Donna Almendrala, and Charles Schulz
Published by Boom! Studios

Lucy gets a rare moment of self-reflection, Linus learns even invisible art is commercial, Franklin gets a feature piece, and Charlie Brown is heartbroken at Valentine’s Day once more in a set of stories that continue to take good, safe care of Charles Schulz’s creations.

Leading off is “The Doctor is Way In” from the best writing/artist team on the book, Scott and Braddock. Lucy gets frustrated and decides to seek advice--from herself. Getting at the heart of one of the most difficult characters for a modern reader, Scott’s climax where Lucy assures herself she must be right after all is spot on to Schulz’s vision, I think.

Lucy also features heavily in two other stories, “She Loves Me…She Loves Me Not” from Dyer and Hirsch and “The Airtist” by Dyer, Jeralds, and Thompson. In the former story, she devastates poor Charlie Brown about his lack of a love life while the latter features her commercialization of Linus’ innocent finger-drawings in the air. Dyer isn’t able to strike the right Lucy balance in either story, making her either too cruel (vs Charlie Brown) or too domineering (vs Linus). I liked Airtist better, because it does feature the vast imagination of the Peanuts gang, able to find wonders in blank canvases and giving Snoopy a chance to play yet another role.

The Franklin story is a bit troubling, because why is the only primary Peanuts character of color given the story about *shoes*? Peppermint Patty would have been just fine for this one, being the character most associate with athleticism. Still, it was nice to see him as a main character, even if he’s ultimately outdone by Snoopy, which of course happens to just about everyone in Schulz’s world.

I don’t have a lot of art notes here because this series really keeps the lit down on the character designs, unlike Garfield, which now features a back-up story each issue with an indie artist drawing Jim Davis’ characters however they wish. I’d love to see variety in the art, but except for a few minor variations in shading from Moore to Roche and perhaps an eyebrow position here or there, you can drop one version of Lucy or Snoopy into another in this issue and would barely notice.

This is a book for those who like fun, safe new stories using the Peanuts gang. It has a mission and executes it well. Whether or not you like that mission is going to be up to you.

Tales of Honor 1
Written by Matt Hawkins
Illustrated by Jung-Geun Yoon (with Linda Sejic)
Published by Top Cow/Image Comics

Honor Harrington's may have finally caught up to her in this first issue that's set in the world of David Weber's novels and chooses an unusual place to begin--with the hero restrained and facing certain death--in an opening issue that was honestly better than I expected.

Military Sci-Fi isn't really my thing. Baen, the publisher of the Honor Harrington novels, is extremely good at what they do, but it's a label I rarely go to because of the nature of their work. So I came into this one blind but curious, and I thought that despite the strange choice of starting points, Hawkins did a pretty good job. With Harrington reflecting on what got her into this mess that looks headed for a state execution (but probably won't end there), it gives him time to provide backstory without killing the mood. We see that Honor is determined, fearless, and unflinching, no matter the odds. There's even an admission that being a woman in the military, even in the future, is a rough road.

Yoon's art is Photoshop heavy, which does hurt the comic because of its frequent feeling of uncanny valley and stiff characterization. It works okay for the space scenes, but when we get into the figure work, Harrington's expression barely changes between being in action, appearing before commanding officers, and preparing to be tortured, which is a real problem. While I had no problem visualizing the military portions of the plot, I found myself wishing there was more in the way of background details to flesh out the story.

In a world where so many things are adapted, I think there's a place for Honor Harrington, and kudos to Top Cow for looking beyond the usual suspects. I'm not the target for this one, but I included it here because I'd like to see it do well. If you like military space opera, this could be a big sleeper hit for you.

*Do you know they padded Angeline Jolie's bra when she played Croft in the movie???? Good Lord.