I usually try to review a comic or two here on the weekends, but my review stack has gotten pretty out of control, so I figured instead of shaving a little off the top, I’d try to make a more sizable dent in it. So below you’ll find reviews of five comics and graphic novels from the last few months.
Empowered Vol. 5 (Dark Horse Comics) Adam Warren’s one-man graphic novel series has reached the point where reviewing each new volume seems a little beside the point. You’re either reading or your not, and if you’re not, you should be. Or at least, you should be if you like, love or maybe even loathe superheroes.
Empowered remains not only the funniest superhero comic on the stands, but also the most mature and sophisticated, which itself seems like a joke given the series’ start in superhero parody, shameless cheesecakery and bondage gags that would make William Moulton Marston blush.
The bondage actually seems to be on the decline this volume, something Empowered herself notes, although there is that one story in which cat-themed character Ocelotina demonstrates the effectiveness of duct tape as a bondage medium on a helpless Emp for the entirety of a fifteen-page chapter (Although even that story moves Warren’s overall plot and Emp’s character arc forward, and foreshadows an aspect of the climax in an unlikely way).
Remarkably, Empowered is getting better with each and every volume. That shouldn’t be surprising, given the serial nature of comics—the longer we spend with the characters, the better we get to know them and the stronger the resonance of the events in their fictional lives, right? But jeez, how often do you see characters in masks and super-suits changing, growing and experiencing affecting conflicts of any kind? And how often do you see it in a comic written, drawn and lettered by the same guy for five volumes and counting now?
A great deal of the space in this volume is devoted to Mindf*ck, ex-lover of Empowered’s teammate/rival Sistah Spooky and now friend of Emp herself (I’m not editing her codename, by the way; Warren writes the whole thing out, and than runs a black box over the “u.” His weird self-editing of swear words is probably the only thing I don’t like about this series). At the climax, Emp’s team The Super-Homeys decide to go after Willy Pete, the fire-powered villain whose menace has been built up over the course of hundreds of pages now, and results are pretty disastrous. While some of the team engages him in person, the villain manages to send their satellite base hurtling towards Earth’s atmosphere.
Warren manages to wring an incredible amount of suspense out of the scene—the advantage of working with your own superheroes instead of corporate-owned ones with long licensing lives ahead of them—and when characters do die, it’s surprisingly dramatic and emotional.
I certainly didn’t expect to be tearing up at the end of a comic that featured a chapter in which a Lovecraftian space god entity trapped on bondage device on a coffee table describes a sexual encounter to a topless ninja who just got home from a job using ninja magic to disguise herself as an LA Laker in language that sounds like that of an extremely villainous, lecherous Stan Lee trying to sound like a Robert E. Howard heavy.
But then, that’s the beauty of Empowered.
Hercules: The Knives of Kush #1 (Radical Comics) As a character, this Hercules seems a little dull and personality-deficient compared to the colorful, goofy, roguish braggart starring in Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s Marvel Comics series about Hercules. But then, the books are quite different.
If the Marvel book takes an “everything happened” approach, merging the mythology to the Marvel continuity to fuel a character-driven superhero buddy comedy, Radical’s book is devoted to straight, pulpy action adventure, set in a realistic milieu—a surprisingly realistic milieu, given the title character.
This Hercules is said to be the son of Zeus by narrator Iolaus, and he wears a hat made out of a lion, but there are no gods or monsters or magic in this issue (although the spells of a wizard priest are talked about). The character is courageous, grim and badass, and that’s about all there is to him, really.
Herc and his band of four mercenaries are sailing on a Greek merchant ship when it’s attacked and sunk by pirates. They wash ashore in Egypt and, seeking to audition for work, they protect some royal types from the band of masked cultists who give the book its subtitle. Soon they’ve found themselves having taken sides in a battle between two brother Pharaohs warring over the kingdom. And they seem to have chosen the losing side (although one imagines that will change by the miniseries’ fifth and final issue—Hercules does have top billing over the Knives of Kush, after all).
Cris Bolson and Doug Sirois’ artwork is quite reminiscent of the painterly-esque art in the early, Cary Nord-drawn issues of Dark Horse’s Conan, which only furthers Moore’s portrayal of Herc as a Conan-type blank barbarian figure. It’s richly detailed, and glows, seemingly lit by sun and torchlight, but lacks some of the life of simpler, less-richly colored pen-and-ink comics art.
My preference for more hand drawn-looking artwork may put me in the minority of mainstream comics readers though. Hercules looks and feels a lot like some of the more popular Marvel books do these days, so an awful lot of people obviously prefer this sort of hyper-realistic art with movie-like lighting.
Incarnate #1 (Radical Comics) I’m sure being the son of a fairly famous celebrity, and being featured on a TV show (even a minor reality show) probably opens a lot of doors in some corners of the entertainment industry—or, at the very least, gets one’s foot in a lot of doors.
And I guess I can’t blame Radical for promoting Incarnate as a book from “Nick Simmons, son of Gene Simmons and star of A&E’s GENE SIMMONS FAMILY JEWELS,” since I’m sure that show has many times more viewers than even the best-selling comics have readers.
But it’s really too bad that the book is being sold as a comic by someone famous for being famous, rather than as a comic by an exciting new comics talent, because Simmons is a genuinely exciting new comics talent, and Incarnate more than stands on its own.
Rather than simply lend his name to the book, Simmons both writes and draws, with a Matt Dalton inking, Brian Buccellato coloring, and three other artists credited as “Assistant Artists.”
It’s kind of an unusual credits page, so I’m not sure who did what exactly, but assuming Simmons is penciling this himself, then I think he may actually be a stronger artist than a writer at this point.
The design is highly manga-influenced, from the clothes and hair to the posture and figures to the shape of their figures and fingers and their expressions. Many of the lay-outs also look manga-esque, and Simmons and company don’t seem to be simply aping the look of manga, but the comic actually works like manga; the story flows and moves from panel to panel and page to page, with very few stumbles.
The story follows a positively ancient young boy named Mot, who seems to be some sort of vampire, although he and his fellows are later referred to simply as Revenants.
He’s awoken after an apparently long slumber or hibernation, and after eating a dude, scaring a dog, and picking up a henchman, he heads to a meeting of other Revenants. There he’s warned that a certain corporation of human beings has learned the secret of how to kill their kind, and have launched a campaign to start doing so.
Mot is unimpressed, even when this human organization attacks. A very violent, fairly deftly choreographed fight scene later, he learns he may have underestimated the humans, and it ends on a cliffhanger when an unlikely-looking ally to the humans walks in.
Those stumbles I mentioned? Well, the book is a tad pretentious—it opens with a passage of John Donne—and Simmons relies too heavily on unnecessary narration, particularly at the beginning of the book. But after a few panels over-stuffed with dialogue (a pretty common problem for newer comics writers) and an awkward shift in narrator before dropping narration all together, the rest of the comic moves fast and smooth.
Based on this single book, I don’t think Gene Simmons is in any danger of becoming known primarily as “Nick Simmons’ dad” any time soon, but this is a pretty remarkable debut regardless. Simmons’ style and the look of the characters and the book are cool enough and distinct enough from that of Radical’s other books to stand out from the pack, and even make the vampires vs. vampire hunters plot at least feel fresh, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the second issue.
Oh, and at 45 pages with a spine, thick cover, and all the ads in the back for just $4.99, this book is a hell of a value in these dark days of $4, 22-page Marvel floppies.
Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (Archaia) Mice vs. an owl! Mice vs. bats! Mice riding on hares! The second volume of David Petersen’s justly acclaimed and rightly beloved fantasy series featuring anthropomorphic mice in a medieval setting contains all of the virtues of the original, and a slightly less complicated narrative.
With his world, main characters and some broad conflicts already drawn out, Petersen can focus on the relationships between the characters more efficiently, while gradually building up the ever richer back-story and texture of his world.
I think critics tend to turn to Tolkien comparisons too quickly, usually to refer to any work that has swords in it and is also really long, but Petersen shares more in common with the architect of Middle Earth than that. He’s building a big, well thought-out world, full of so many details both minor and major that it begins to feel real, as fantastic as it may be.
I mentioned the big set-pieces at the beginning, but as exciting as these animal-on-animal action scenes are, the greater threat our Guardsmice heroes face is the weather of winter and the lingering interior threats from the hostile almost-take-over of the previous series.
A band of Guardsmice, including the heroes of the previous series, are on a dangerous mission through the winter snows, and the become separated, with half the team traveling over land, and facing an owl, while the other half makes their way through the ruins of a kingdom of ferrets, racing against time toward their headquarters, which is under a threat of a different kind.
It’s great stuff—an all-ages adventure with a little something for everyone. I mean, even if you’re completely resistant to Petersen’s darling little warrior mice and the politics and perils of their world, theirs still his thick, meaty line, his deft cross-hatching, observant capture of the natural world, and his fully realized designs of mice that move like men.
It’s such strong artwork that I’m sure I’d love this comic even if it weren’t written in some medieval mouse language and I couldn’t read a word of it.
Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka Vol. 3 (Viz) Naoki Urasawa’s retelling of Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy story “The Greatest Robot on Earth” continues, growing deeper as it gets longer. In this volume the title character, the horned robot serial killer that’s been killing both humans and some of the most powerful robots in the world is finally revealed—and then re-revealed, as it’s not quite what it seems. Urasawa’s focus also shifts from robot police officer Geist to a group that wants Geist dead, and to Atom and his little sister Uran, as Atom seems to be next on Pluto’s list.
Urasawa’s highly realistic design style (compared to Tezuka’s, anyway) makes an aspect of the book—hat robots have become so sophisticated that the line between them and human beings is becoming blurred—tangible, and keeps this series one that’s fascinating on two levels. It’s still interesting just to see Urasawa’s versions of Tezuka’s familiar characters, but the murder mystery/thriller he’s telling is enjoyable all on it’s own, regardless of how familiar you are with its inspiration.
That group that wants to destroy Geist, by the way, is basically the Ku Klux Klan for robots. They even wear robes and pointy white mask/hoods, so they resemble pinheaded ghosts. That’s progress, right? In the future, instead of hating one another for their race or ethnicity, hate-filled human beings will join together to all hate robots?