December 3, 2014

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Rob M's Single Minded for 12/3: Hell Yeah, New Hellboy, Plus Army of Darkness, Shaft, and More

Welcome to another edition of Single Minded, where I look at some single-issue books as they're fresh and new. Several of these books were things I wasn't sure if I'd like or not, but they turned out pretty well. The most notable is one I expect lots of folks will be talking about (pun intended) but we'll lead off with a strong return to form for Mike Mignola, reunited with his signature character. Have a look at what I thought about...

Hellboy and the B.P.R.D 1
Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Line Art by Alex Maleev
Color Art by Dave Stewart
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Everyone has to start somewhere. Once upon a time, Hellboy was a youngster straining against his boundaries. When a strange occurrence pops up in Brazil in 1952, he's sent along on his first mission, with agents who aren't entirely sure he's on their side. Things go back to the (almost) beginning in this new mini-series that's off to a pretty good start.

Going back and telling "year one" stories can always be dangerous territory, but this one, at least so far, has been pretty good. I'm not current on Hellboy's story (I fell behind a few years ago), so I could be wrong, but I didn't get a sense that this mini-series was created in order to link up to something that comes later, which tends to kill my enthusiasm for prequels, which need to stand on their own merits. We get some very natural reactions--Can this creature who may just kill us all be trusted?--Is Hellboy ready for field work?--but they aren't tainted by future elements. Instead, we just get a good story set-up: A supernatural beast is on the loose, and the B.P.R.D. is tasked with stopping it. It certainly won't stay that straightforward (though honestly, I'd be okay if it did), but it looks unlikely that we'll get bogged down in connections.

I've felt in the past that Mignola was a stretched a bit thin, but here, too, my fears have been eased, at least in the early going. There's a nice feeling of unease, the cast have their own unique voices that are sure to develop over time, and Hellboy's enthusiasm, driven by his first mission, shines through clearly. He's going to be headstrong, and that's going to be an issue. I really like how there's an edge to how some human members of the team react to Hellboy. This is not the set-up we're used to, where Hellboy is old hat. He's still an unknown, and the writing of Mignola and Arcudi understand that and use it to their advantage.

The best part of this one, however, is the art. I admit, I was a bit worried about Maleev working on Hellboy, as I didn't think he's be able to create the right mood and style. I could not have been more wrong! Not sure if he's just changed his style a bit or not, but this is some of his tightest line work. The characters still have rough and angular designs, and they're often cast in shadow (which Dave Stewart creates amazingly well), but they feel more lifelike than, say, his time on Daredevil, which I realize was a long time ago. His depiction of the worst thing Hellboy could turn into just pops right off the page (literally--one horn is off the top of the bleed), looming over a burning, dying city. Here, too, Stewart excels, turning in color work that reminds me why he's won so many Eisners. His way of splashing just a bit of red when Hellboy is around, even if things elsewhere are almost entirely black, is simply brilliant.

Maleev's backgrounds are hyper-detailed, with every book in a study getting a spine, the tread on a spare tire individualized(!), and Hellboy's room an untidy mess. He makes the Brazilian location incredibly creepy, with oddly placed and shaped tombstones, a winding road that leads to a building right out of Edgar Allan Poe. It's phenomenal how well he's captured this world, which looks so very different from Mignola's stark lines and patterns and yet at the same time feels like exactly the same place.

This is easily the best Mignolaverse book I've read in some time, and I'm excited for more. If you've gotten a bit of fatigue after all the Lobster Johnsons and Baltimores, don't shy away here. This is well worth your time and attention, and is set up for some real action as we move into issue two.

Army of Darkness Ash in Space 1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Line Art by Larry Watts
Color Art by Aikau Oliva
Published by Dynamite Comics

Ash! In! Spaaaaaaccccceeeeee!

Probably need to say more than that in a review, huh? Okay: Ash is off in space to stop an old foe from uploading evil to the international space station, which goes about as well as you'd expect in a new mini-series that has some really clever lines but could suffer from over-exposure.

I'm not an obsessive fan of Army of Darkness, but I have enjoyed most of the comics I read featuring Ash, especially when they're all mentally voiced by Bruce Campbell. But with almost no time to rest between series (seems like we barely got to the last issue of his Medieval adventure, to say nothing of the crossover with Cassie Hack), this probably doesn't have as much impact as if it had come a few months from now.

That said, Cullen Bunn definitely has the voice down. His wise-cracks are much more on point than the ones Steve Niles did, and the crucial moment where he can't figure out how to stop a download, then quips maybe it's okay because "piracy's a victimless crime" is spot-on for Ash. He also does a nice job of plotting for how Ash might fight in zero gravity and even gets him out in a space suit for a period of time. The plot of this first issue really moves, too, and sets up a dual-problem for Ash--finding a way to save the day AND overcome yet another personal tragedy.

Larry Watts helps a ton with making this one work. His panel layouts are amazing, especially a splash page that features Ash floating, ready to attack, with the space shuttle off in the background. Once the space fight is over, body parts float randomly, including an eyeball that drifts past as Ash recovers. Watts's action scenes flow so well, too--the action glides across the page, giving a strong sense of movement. Even when he's putting Ash in an iconic pose, there's still a feeling that he's about to do something, not standing static for the artist to draw.

But the key on this one, artistically, is Watts' facial reactions. Ash is rubber-faced and has extremely expressive eyes, lending even more oomph to Bunn's jokes. He's arrogant, confused, scared, and angry, depending on the moment. When you add the nice use of red to represent just how much blood is involved in everything Ash does (thanks to colorist Aikau Oliva) and its contrast with the white of the shuttle, suit, and station, you get a comic that's enough to make me get past my "Another Army of Darkness Book?" reaction and make me excited to read issue two.

(Oh, and shout out to Gabriel Hardman for yet another great cover. That man just kills it every time.)

Planet Gigantic 2
Written and Color Art by Eric Grissom
Line Art by David Halvorson (Trapped!) and Will Perkins (The Frog Runner)
Published by Action Lab

Valentina and Yuri are up to their restraint collars in trouble, as the evil queen that captured them looks to consolidate power--by taking it from others! Only a mysterious princess can save them--if he can save herself first, that is. That and more background information on this world are contained in the second issue of Planet Gigantic, which gets a bit darker but retains its solid all-ages feel.

After starting off with a very science fiction vibe, we've moved more into fantasy here, with a world that features strange creatures, magical powers, and evil rulers. Grissom's plot for the main story falls solidly within the concept of "lost human kids end up in a strange place" trope, which is perfectly fine as long as the supporting elements continue to be interesting. It's not looking like this series is going to break any new ground or shatter conventions (even the two main characters are a smart young girl and her protective, headstrong brother), which is a bit disappointing, but I had fun seeing just how much trouble Grissom would stick them in. The answer is Deep, Deep Trouble.*

In the backup story, the world of Planet Gigantic gets a little bit bigger, as we find a war-torn world where one message can change everything. It's a story of perseverance, reminding me a bit of the story of how we get the word marathon, and I suspect Grissom may be going for that vibe. (Any good all-ages story should always have things that kids can like and older readers can appreciate.) The end result, however, was genuinely surprising, and takes things in a much more somber direction than I'd anticipated.

For the main story, artist David Halvorson provides thick lines and a rough feel to the overall world, making it look very different from what most all-ages books provide readers. He's good at creating varied aliens, especially in group prison scenes, reminding me of Ben Hatke in that regard, though the look and design is completely different. He's building a world on the fly, and it's very angular. I like how Halvorson shows really awful moments without bringing them front and center (a character drained of life is in foggy shadow behind the triumphant queen) allowing for this world to have death without making it so violent as to keep it out of younger hands. On the flip side, though, the blocky, rough style doesn't give the characters much room to emote, so there's a trade off that some might dislike.

By comparison, Will Perkins' style couldn't be more different. He's into thin, fine lines, ala Jae Lee, providing intricate details, like the individual sprouts of growth on a fallen log or the fine hairs on a giant spider. His characters are more lithe, which fits in terms of depicting a frog-race and its chosen messenger. Perkins provides the visuals for Grissom's ongoing narration, putting the main character in peril as he travels to the scene of battle. When we get to things more akin to what Halvorson has already drawn, his take is still blocky, but I think we have a better sense of scale because of the detailing. I admit his work was more to my taste, and I appreciate that this series has that difference, to fit the story Grissom wants to tell.

I think Planet Gigantic probably works best for those with young readers in the house, but if you enjoy fantasy stories mixed with a bit of sci fi, see what you think. It's nothing innovative or ground breaking--just a solid story of a new, imaginative world, with immense potential.

Shaft 1
Written by David F. Walker
Line Art by Bilquis Evely
Color Art by Daniela Miwa
Published by Dynamite Entertainment

It's time to talk about Shaft.


I'd have never forgiven myself if I hadn't dug that up for you. (It's got some amazing guitar work, too, you should totally watch it.) This one comic I was very, very curious about when I heard about it, and now it's here. Writer David F. Walker has chosen to take us back to a younger version of the character, digging into what made Shaft into the character that most know from the movies and a few remember from the original books. We start here with Shaft, just out of Viet Nam, as a boxer ready to show what it means to fight. He's asked to take a dive, and well...you can guess the rest.

This is a really well-illustrated book. Bilquis Evely took the time to see what kinds of cars and fashions would be around in the 1970s, and since I've watched entirely too many movies made before I was born, I appreciated the fact that this wasn't a generic clothing dump. The styles are so varied, even the crowd shots have differing patterns on the shirts and pants, all matching that time when all the designers took a decade off. More importantly, however, when working on a book that's going to heavily feature African Americans, often ones acting badly, Evely shows he's up to the task of showing the wide range of body shapes and facial features that make up any group of people. (A perfect example of this comes when six black men are all in the same panel, and none of them look the same.)

Why does this matter? Because you and I both know that too often, a book like this would feature artistic shortcuts, generic, cookie cutter looks, and, sadly stereotypes. It's clear that Evely is working hard to ensure that while this book hews closely to the aesthetics of a blacksploitation movie that is is clear from some of those films' issues. He absolutely nails it. When combined with the coloring from Daniela Miwa, who makes sure that all the African Americans aren't shaded the same (another little touch that's sometimes lost elsewhere), provides nice contrasting backgrounds that bring out Evely's figure work, and throws the clothing into ugly relief.

The plot works well, if it's a bit of something we've seen before, going back to Battlin' Jack Murdock. The line work is outstanding quality and has great coloring.
But the dialogue? That's a work in progress. Shaft's internal monologue, where he talks about fighting to win? Great stuff. The running gag of a Harlem Hustler saying everything he's doing is his middle name? A lot of fun. But the racial slurs and number of curses in general are so frequent I think they distract from the narrative. It may be accurate to the source material--or perhaps playing to reader expectations. I just hope it gets toned down, because I think Shaft has a lot of potential as a comic properly.

The entire team involved on this one has gone a good job of avoiding many of the pitfalls I was concerned about. Settling in without some of the over-the-top lines so that the verbal quality matches the artistic quality would move this into the recommended pile. Right now, it's more of a "check for yourself" situation. I'll keep reading, because I trust Walker to get it right, once he's had a few issues to work on it.

Valiant-Sized Quantum and Woody 1
Written by Tim Siedell and James Asmus
Line Art by Pere Perez and Brian Level
Color Art by Allen Passalaqua, Wil Quintana, and Jose Villarrubia
Published by Valiant Entertainment

Christmas comes early this year for Quantum and Woody fans, in what might in another time have been called their Holiday Special. The boys are asked to work with their arch-enemy Thomas Edison (just roll with it) to save the planet from an asteroid. When a parallel dimension leads to mixed-up Woodys, things go from bad to worse and set up future stories for the pair of dysfunctional heroes.

A collection of three short stories that link together, this special issue is notable in pointing out that Asmus probably should be the only one writing this title. While his part--the middle section--is an amazing riff on "Twas the Night Before Christmas" with perfect cadence, rhymes that are tortured, and scenes of alternative Quantum and Woody teams that range from decorated heroes to apocalyptic wastelands or occult figures all illustrated with a different comic book style by the talented Pere Perez, those written by Tim Siedell stretch far too hard to try to reach the gags.

The worst of this is adding a stereotypical Iranian scientist who shouts racist gibberish for no good reason, talks like he walked out of a Jeff Dunham special, and is so annoying even one of the characters comments on him. It's an attempt to be meta, but when combined with the cheap shot at North Korea thrown in for good measure, it just wasn't that funny. Better is watching Woody try to pretend to be smart like his otherworldly counterpart and of course, the usual block-lettered scene breaks. Siedell does better with the third story, where a figure plots his revenge on Quantum and Woody (presumably setting up the new mini-series with Asmus and Steve Lieber) but stops to do everything from saving a cat from a tree to forming a huge corporation, all in less time than it takes Woody to get banned from a strip club.

The art across the board is very good. Perez also illustrates the main series and manages to make things chaotic and fun in the panel layouts. He's not quite as good at reaction looks as Fowler or Doyle, but when he's showing them get annoyed by glove prototypes that look like they belong in a kitchen or working with a dead body, there's plenty of visual comedy to go around. Brian Level, taking on the revenge tale, has a style more similar to the incoming Lieber, doing a long series of set pieces that are design to maximize the comedy while caption box after caption box of serious lines are undercut by watching a couple form a heart in an air balloon or hamming on a construction site.

All in all, I enjoyed this one, but not as much as I usually do when reading Quantum and Woody. Sometimes, it's really all about a particular writer working with specific characters. I think that's true here, and I'm happy that Asmus isn't leaving this pair behind anytime soon.


*But not this kind of Deep Deep Trouble: