Rob M's Single Minded for 12/24: IDW Wishes You a Merry X-Mas, North Ends His Adventure Time, More

Happy Holidays from the Panel Patter team! Depending on your faith, you're either wrapping up or ramping up your celebrations, but comics still come out today. Here's some thoughts on some of the books that were under your stocking at the local comic book store or your favorite digital device today.

X-Files X-Mas Special
Season 10 Greetings by Joe Hill (words), Matthew Dow Smith (line art), 
and Jordie Bellaire (color art)
Merry Christmas, Comrade! by Karl Kesel (words), Matthew Southworth (line art), 
and Matheus Lopes (color art)
Published by IDW

'Tis the season for unexplained mysteries! First, Mulder looks back on how a plan to trap Santa Claus is linked to his family's tragic past and the ongoing machinations of the Cigarette Smoking Man. Then, returning to the past, the Year Zero X-Files team try to determine if it's sabotage or a real-life Grinch that's stolen more than Christmas in this holiday special that shined bright for me.

Though it's the second story in this two-part issue, Karl Kesel, Matthew Southworth, and Matheus Lopes steal the show as Kesel brings back his incredibly engaging team back for an encore here. (Can we get another mini of this team, please?) A GI with a history of working with the Russians is suspected of trying to kills his co-workers, but the truth neatly mixes an old Warner Brothers cartoon, a Twilight Zone classic, plenty of great one-liners, and one of the best panels I've seen in a long time to make for a perfect period piece. As always Kesel's plotting is top-notch, and his ability to link things together makes him perfect for X-Files stories. And I'm not even mentioning how Kesel gives a certain resurgent creature a cameo, because it's more fun to run into it by reading the issue! But the gem here is Kesel's decision to portray Hoover as a bit of a snark, which is brilliant. I defy anyone not to laugh out loud at the penultimate page of this one.

Southworth's art is very much in keeping with the slightly scratchy work that most of the new X-Files series has featured, though Matheus Lopez's coloring definitely softens it by rounding out cheeks, using digital shading to add depth, and other small touches. The panels play the story pretty straight--there's nothing outrageous or innovative in the layouts, but that's okay because Kesel is doing the heavy lifting here with the plot and script.

In the Mulder-and-Scully story, Joe Hill shows us that, unsurprisingly, Mulder's always had a thing for investigating myths. It turns out he may have been on to something, and it's confirmed later, when an e-cig wielding Cigarette Smoking Man keeps Mulder at bay in a mall. This one's a bit heavy on the "you need to know a lot about the X-Files" material, which blunted a bit of the impact for me, as I have gaps. But Hill's dialogue is as sharp as ever, he's able to reveal and yet obscure, and the comedic bits with the Lone Gunmen are very well timed, including a running gag that gives Mulder and Scully a rare happy ending.

I admit, however, I barely recognized Matthew Dow Smith here. I'm used to his very distinctive and angular style that makes his layouts--and especially his characters--feel like they have been constructed almost geometrically. The layouts and figure structures are still strong, and his splash featuring the mall has all the intricate detail I'm used to. But most of the linework is missing that signature touch, and it makes Smith's work seem more like Michael Walsh or others who have done X-Files work on this new series, dulling the impact of what Smith can do. I'm not sure if that was Smith trying something new or the usually excellent Jordie Bellaire obscuring some of the line work under the muted coloring, but it did disappoint me a bit. It made a grand slam team feel more like a book rule double--I liked it, but not as much as I'd hoped I would.

A lot of times these one-shot holiday specials are forgettable filler. While there's nothing amazing revealed, they are two solid stories well worth picking up for fans of Carter's TV show that's still going strong in the comics.

Adventure Time 35
Written by Ryan North
Illustrated by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb
Published by Boom! Studios

Come along with the North-Paroline-Lamb Team for one last Adventure Time, as the main cast gathers together, only to be accused of theft by the Lumpy Space Princess! Oh My Glob, will they end their run with a beloved character as a criminal? It's a great goodbye from a killer creative team, ending on a nice high note while keeping the deck clear for their successors.

Ryan "Dinosaur Comics" North took what worked for his webcomic and translated into the madcap, self-referential world of Adventure Time, hitting the ground running from the very first issue, but he was always best when working on a one-shot story instead of longer arcs. I'm glad that's how we go out here, because it means we get the return of the alt-text (which he places under the bleed), insane conversations that are right out of T-Rex (my favorite was the three-way argument about corn with LSP, Jake, and the Ice King, in which the alt text warns us not to over-use butter).

Loosely set up as a mystery, it's really an excuse just to allow the imaginations of everyone from BMO to Princess Bubblegum to run wild, giving Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb a final chance to show off their incredible chops. What makes Adventure Time sing is its ability to be controlled anarchy, and the visuals have to match that. Whether it's Jake turning into everything from a banner to a fake Princess or going from BMO noir to Ice King's self-centered view of the night before, they're able to keep the visual gags matching North's mile-a-minute pacing. The fact that you can still admire their work when there are so many word balloons fighting for space is a real tribute to their work.

Paroline and Lamb kept things on model, too, both in this issue and the run as a whole. They'll definitely be missed. Boom! has been very good at making all of the Adventure Time comics as high quality as the main television show, and I have no doubt that will continue in the hands of Christopher Stirling (Dr. McNinja) and Zachary Sterling. But this hysterical, madcap, and yet also inspirational send off gives them a lot to live up to. This is my pick of the week, and it's not to be missed.

Fight Like a Girl 2
Written by David Pinckney
Illustrated by Soo Lee
Published by Action Lab

Amarosa continues her quest to save her brother, fighting against a bleak future that serves as a good analogue to the odds she faces in a second issue that still has rough edges but did much to increase my interest.

I read issue one of this series, and opted not to review it because it felt a bit too generic to me, with thin characterization and a premise that's not exactly new, along with some leaps in storytelling logic that I couldn't look past. Some of that still happens here--we open in a flashback that doesn't look like it's in the past, for example--but we do get a better grounding for Amarosa. She's desperate at this point, and there's nothing she can do but put everything aside and think only of her brother. Nagged by memories of an unsupportive boyfriend and hassled by the voyeuristic nature of the gods putting her to the test, she can't give up, or all is lost. I particularly loved the section when she notes that the threat of eternal damnation doesn't phase her--because she's living it now.

Things like that will help me get past the typos and layouts by Soo Lee that too often don't do anything to add to the story. There's a lot of stock backgrounds (ruins with no distinguishing marks, mon-colored skies, etc.), very little facial emotion (at one point, faced with a human-killing robot, Amarosa has no expression at all), and generally stiff structure across too many pages. It's the hallmarks of an artist at the start of their career, and I think Lee can improve, but right now, this is not quite up to the level of a comic that's going to sit on a shelf next to titles from Dynamite, IDW, or Titan, let alone Image. There are touches, such as when Amarosa's reflection in a mirror is more clearly defined than her actual self, that show signs of promise.

Fight Like a Girl is worth looking at, especially because it does use an independent young woman making hard choices and not caring the odds are hopeless. Plus, there's a fight with a giant robot, and that's always cool, even when it's not amazing visually. But it may have a few too many problems for your taste, so be aware. I'm definitely in for at least one more issue, though it really needs to pick up in terms of quality control for issue three.

Colder The Bad Seed 3
Written by Paul Tobin
Illustrated by Juan Ferreyra (with Eduardo Ferreyra)
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Declan and Reese return to the nightmare of the hungry world, where everything they know is turned on its ear by Swivel. A tenuous grasp on sanity is severed (along with a lot of other things) in this third issue that shows why this was one of my favorite horror teams in 2013.

Being honest, I wasn't warming up (so to speak) to this second course in Declan's world after the first two issues. I'm still not quite sure why--it had amazing visual horror from Juan Ferreyra, and Paul Tobin's plotting was spectacularly creepy. I think it might have been that it was taking a bit longer to really get into the meat of the problem, as the single issues didn't quite hold as much punch on their own. (I read the first series as a whole.) This time, however, there felt like a narrative within a larger arc, as we discover that (maybe) everything Declan and Reece thought they knew was a lie. Moving across the hungry world, Tobin keeps us off-balance along with the confused characters while Ferreyra matches him step for step on visuals, going from one landscape to the next.

This allows for several set pieces, and the one where Declan (maybe) is revealed to be a thief and has an old-school punishment delivered, is definitely the most effective. You can tell where it's going from Ferreyra's half-page scene-setting, and from their the creative duo ramps up the tension as you wonder--will what you think is going to happen occur or is it time for a zig-zag? This section works because of a perfect harmony of writer and artist, putting together not just a bunch of scary moments (which is what the first two issues felt like) but a rolling avalanche of horror that culminates in a surprise ending that leaves Reece with a choice to make.

Body horror? Disturbing images that will stick with you? Intricately detailed pages that use color to highlight the contrasts of a dystopian dreamscape? Great, mind-messing dialogue and plotting that puts everything we knew from last series into question? You'll find that all here, as Colder's sequel starts to live up to the original. I wish this read a bit better in singles, but it's still highly recommended for horror fans.