James' Single-Minded for 1/28/15: Image is Everything

The Dying and the Dead #1
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Illustrated by Ryan Bodenheim
Colors by Michael Garland
Letters by Rus Wooton
Image Comics

When Jonathan Hickman, Ryan Bodenheim and Michael Garland collaborate, the results are big and gritty and action-packed and dramatic and intense. Red Mass for Mars is a futuristic superhero story with ominous heft and power, and Secret is a compelling, gut-wrenching look into the world of industrial espionage (please, do yourself a favor and read both these books now). In The Dying & The Dead, the creative team sets their sights on an even bigger story, one that looks to encompass war heroes, the battle against death, world domination, clones (maybe?), and ancient humanoid civilizations (or maybe angels or demons). So, just those things. For any fans of Jonathan Hickman's work, this issue (with 60 pages of story for $4.50) is an absolute must-read.

In The Manhattan Projects and East of West, Hickman's other current creator-owned projects, it's difficult to say that there are clear heroes. Those are more stories about complex systems and the impact of a powerful self-selected elite on a society. By contrast (and even after only one, albeit oversized, issue), The Dying & The Dead feels much more like a classical story about a hero trying to defeat evil in order to save his beloved (and, you know, the world). In this case the year is 1969, and the hero is Captain Edward James Canning, retired military man. He's struck a dark bargain with powerful (and truly striking-looking) ancient beings to help them retrieve a stolen object from a considerable threat, and in exchange they will heal his dying wife. 

The first issue doesn't show us the exact nature of this threat, but it clearly establishes that they are efficient, brutal, and we have every reason to fear them. The Captain is a veteran of World War II, and this is going to be a story of him fighting one last battle (which seems to involve the supernatural and may also involve Nazis, as any epic battle should); the first issue effectively sets this grandiose, mythic tone and establishes the stakes. We don't much about him or his story, but we know he loves his wife and he was a soldier, which feels like enough for now. Character in Hickman's books is typically driven less by elaborate back stories and more by what they want, what they're trying to accomplish. Hickman does, however, provide effective dialogue with his typical dry wit. The tough, grizzled personality of the Captain comes across, as does the fact that he's singularly focused on his goals, and isn't all that impressed with the hidden world of super beings. 

This is a gorgeous comic. Bodenheim knows how to set a scene, and he and Hickman engage in some masterful decompressed storytelling here. With 60 pages for the first issue, they have the space to really build up a scene, from small elements, to the general geographic overlay, to the specifics of a (ultimately very unhappy) wedding. Coupled with Hickman's ominous (but not overly intrusive) narration, this builds a real sense of dread and weight, which conveys that there are big things at stake. Bodenheim also excels at facial characterization and overall character design and character interaction. His characters have detailed, intricate features and a slightly exaggerated style to them, and their emotion comes through clearly in the art. He's a skilled sequential storyteller, as his action has weight and movement, and his backgrounds and layouts are full of precise detail. 

None of this (highly effective) storytelling would be possible without the work of Michael Garland, though. His coloring is one of the real stars of the show in this book. If you've read Red Mass for Mars or Secret, then you know that Garland doesn't use "realistic" coloring in his collaborations with Hickman. Instead, he washes over each panel (or series of panels) with certain colors. A change in color panel conveys a threat (such as a wedding about to get very messy) or conveys a change in location (such as a movement from the Greek islands to the mountains of Germany). These colors provide an engaging, atmospheric effect. 

Garland also uses an interesting effect with the aliens/Angels/ancient beings that promise to help Captain Canning's wife. They're completely white in a striking way. This is similar to the effect Jordie Bellaire has been using in Moon Knight, and it's effective here as well as in conveying a sense that the beings are truly alien. A whole room of them, situated in a world with color and interacting with a "regular" human, provides a terrifically dissonant, unsettling feeling. He also uses a similar effect on a dramatic two-page spread showing a wander over desert location. Everything is the same general washed-out color except for a big black car, and it makes the car feel forced and unnatural in that scene (which it is). It's skilled storytelling, and a helpful reminder that there are many ways to color a comic. 

The Dying &The Dead is big, powerful debut, and is shaping up to be a fun, epic tale of heroism, and is well worth a look. 

Casanova: Acedia #1
"Nine Days Now" written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Fabio Moon
"The Metanauts: Kawaii Five-O" written by Michael Chabon and illustrated by Gabriel Ba
Colors by Cris Peter
Letters by Dustin Harbin
Image Comics

If you're looking for a trippy, witty, gorgeous, weird, sexy espionage story and don't mind being thrown right into the deep end of the pool (metaphorically speaking, though there is a fight in a pool), then Casanova: Acedia* #1 is great place to start. Matt Fraction, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba have been telling stories about super thief/spy/secret agent Casanova Quinn for a number of years now, at several different publishers. Casanova is now back at Image Comics (where it began), and Casanova: Acedia #1 is the beginning of a new story arc. They're joined here by acclaimed author Michael Chabon** who writes the second (and possibly even weirder) of two stories included here. 
There's a dense back story to Casanova Quinn, as he's a time and universe hopping thief and spy. I'd just mention that at the end of the last volume of Casanova, he was thrown through the multiverse into our world (more or less). In the first story (from Fraction and Moon) Casanova's made a new life for himself (with the new identity of Quentin Cassiday) in Hollywood (which is full of people reinventing themselves), as the advisor and assistant to a powerful man who also has no memory of his early life. And after a sexy-turned-nearly deadly encounter at a party, Casanova and his boss decide to look into each other's pasts, but Casanova's weird past seem to be chasing him. The second story (from Chabon and Ba) takes a look at a rock band named T.A.M.I. which seems to have a connection to strange occurrences and other worlds. 

This is a story with wit and charm and style and gorgeously weird art to spare, which is helpful because it's also a somewhat confusing issue (particularly the second story). It's actually not much of a problem here, it works quite well since Casanova is a man thrown into a strange world (that being our world, more or less), so if he's not sure who he is or why he knows the things he knows, it makes sense that the reader should feel his same disorientation. He's sort of like Jason Bourne except a lot more fun and stylish and in a sleazy Hollywood setting. The second part of the issue brings a fun, weird tale of a popular all-female rock band and its newest member who may or may not be human, and who may also have ties to Casanova's hidden history.  

The first story is a wild-colorful, sexy romp and the backup story is even more so, but both have a bright, colorful, weird, racy charm to them. This is thanks to the gorgeous, angular, vivid, expressionistic styles of Moon and Ba, and the spectacular color work from Cris Peter and lettering from Dustin Harbin, their longtime collaborators on these books.  This is something closer to the real world than has been typically portrayed in Casanova stories, but this is a world in which it feels like anything can happen, and that is due to the skill of the art team on this book. There's also something of a focus on scantily-clad women in this story, but given the somewhat abstract nature of the art, and the way in which these instances work as part of a larger story, it doesn't feel objectifying. It just feels like part of the strange, sexy, brightly colored world of which Casanova Quinn is a part.

The bright, varied, unusual coloring gives this world something of an alien feel, and Moon and Ba (whose styles are fairly similar to each other, and while completely their own, have echoes of a more playful Mike Mignola or a more abstract Howard Chaykin) bring a slightly rough, exaggerated, expressionistic feel to the book, primarily in their depiction of people.  In the first story, Moon also gets a chance to show his skills in depicting action. He brings so much energy and fluidity and menace to a sequence where Casanova is surrounded by weird threats in his quest to help his boss discover his past. Casanova may not know who he is, but thanks to Moon (and Peter's fantastic usage of light and shadow), he fights and dispatches a number of threats in a way that clearly appears instinctual.  

The colors from Peter pop on every page, but there's great attention to detail in the color work in this book. In a sequence where Casanova is fighting for his life underwater in a pool, the entire book has a slightly washed-over or filmy feel to it, to make clear you're seeing the characters through the water. A similarly effective technique is used when viewing the character through a window.  Similarly, Harbin's lettering provides a great feel to the series. Just on the first page, there are 3 different fonts used, a stronger all-caps font for the omniscient narrator, a more jagged one used for dialogue, and a hand-written style font used to show the journals of Casanova. That's great attention to storytelling through letters, along with the many other examples in the book of sound-effects lettering being well-integrated into action sequences, with bright, stylish colors and fonts. 

This is a fun, weird book absolutely worth reading even if you're not familiar with the prior stories in the series.  If you're looking for a book that's bursting with color, excitement, weirdness, sex, style, wit and mysteries, look no further than Casanova: Acedia #1.

* Apparently it means apathy or sloth. Had to look that one up. 

**  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay should be required reading for any comics fan.