Kill or Be Killed, the new series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is two paperbacks’ worth of issues deep and so I picked the first volume up. Brubaker and Phillips remind me very much of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, in that they pair a consummately adequate writer with an artist who is doing something really rare and wonderful and stylish and so I tend to endure the plotting and dialogue rather than enjoy it, but it doesn’t matter at all when faced with the beautiful art. Phillips, I think, is drawing with a computer now—there’s a telltale thing that happens when you digitize line widths that makes them come out weirdly uniform. It looks worse on some artists than others—Jesus Merino’s Astro City stuff is a bit distracting, for example—but Phillips pulls it off. Anyway I feel like I should briefly drop in a disclaimer observing that neither Loeb nor Brubaker’s writing is contemptible, merely undistinguished to a degree that constantly reminds a reader that the script would suffer not even a little as a teleplay. But those two guys are the primary collaborators of two really astounding artists so I recommend Loeb’s Hulk: Gray and Catwoman: When in Rome—both very solid, fun-to-read books—and Brubaker’s Sleeper and Fatale, the former being a clever superhero narrative and the latter being a time-hopping horror-crime tale that I really enjoyed. I’ve found Brubaker’s warmed-over roman noir style to be kind of samey, though, and I enjoyed The Fade Out basically in spite of him; his protagonists are always such insufferable dickheads. This time he may have out-dickheaded himself: His main character, Dylan, is a vigilante who runs around blowing away “bad” people; Brubaker is not a dummy and the book is loudly telegrpahing that it will question what exactly it means to be a bad person, and there is a supernatural aspect to our hero’s motivation. The problem is the hero: He is not merely a murdering punk but also the whiniest little incel in comics and the net effect, which I’m not sure is intentional, is that he seems like someone who actually would go on a killing spree on an Eliot Rodger model. Anyway the art is terrific.
1a. Actually please just read Graham Chaffee’s fantastic To Have and To Hold from earlier this year instead. It’s very much as if James M Cain wrote comics.
Along thematically similar lines but as different as possible in execution, Rick Veitch has finally returned to comics publishing through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, and let me tell you, demand it I do. Veitch is one of the most talented cartoonists alive and his incredibly weird sensibility has given the world some graphic novels that I think will probably stand the test of time alongside crazy shit like Jim Woodring’s beautiful Disneyfied hallucinations. This time his subject is a sort-of-Superboy character with a lot of the same gross impulses as the Kill or Be Killed protag, but much stranger. Veitch has written two mind-meltingly weird but ultimately cohesive superhero graphic novels, Brat Pack and The One, the first being an intensely sordid deconstruction of all the sexual undertones in comics and a solidly pointed piece of industry criticism, to boot; the second is just a good graphic novel about the evolutionary end of humanity. One thing I truly love about Veitch is that he’s perfectly happy imagining changes to the status quo in his narrative so huge that they end the story, or the industry, or the species, and I guess it’s inevitable that his new book, Kid Maximortal, would attempt to end the superhero genre. It’s a sequel of sorts to his Superman riff, The Maximortal, which I believe is due for a new edition from IDW, and both read a lot like literary criticism, if literary criticism had fun characters and didn’t make any more sense than it had to. The new book has two plot threads totally overcome by heavily symbolic surrealism and a third, based on the life of Jack Kirby, that is an expertly rendered and deeply felt bit of realism. I wish the whole thing cohered narratively with more attention to plot and character and less to theme. Veitch isn’t bad at plot or character; he’s just less interested in them than he is in, it has to be said, the extremely well-traveled path of comics-as-comics-criticism. It’s still worth reading and has a ton of goodies in the back, among them his manifesto and a bunch of pin-ups of Swamp Thing and his and Alan Moore’s wonderful Greyshirt character, as well as a terrific old story from Heavy Metal where the robot characters speak in bar codes. I recommend it very, very highly, if not unreservedly.
I discovered to my delight that I’m a book behind on Kurt Busiek’s consistently good Astro City; the series is always so much fun that I find myself occasionally saving it for a day when I’m depressed. Busiek is one of the best pure writers of superheroes alive; Alan Moore is, at his very best, a masterly horror writer, and Neil Gaiman is a fantasist, but Busiek seems to have been genetically engineered for the sole purpose of writing colorful super-characters, and the 13th volume of the series, Honor Guard, sees him stretching out into different varieties. One thing that distinguishes Busiek from other contemporary superhero writers is that he remembers there are influences deserving of his (and the reader’s) attention beyond Jack Kirby. There’s a quasi-Edgar Rice Burroughs story in this book, and one with some anime influence, and a less successful tale about an Australian guy with the power to shrink. It’s a catch-all collection, bringing together a bunch of one-off stories, and I miss one-off stories in these days of infinitely long crossover series, so I was pretty happy to read it. The art is by Jesus Merino, as mentioned above, with Tom Grummett, one of DC’s better and least-sung workhorses, and a couple of other guys I’d never heard of—Joe Infurnari and Gary Chaloner. The final story is a real knockout, and repositions an old foe of the super-team of the title as a new ally; it’s surprisingly moving. I’m looking forward to digging in to that 14th volume I hadn’t spotted on the shelves yet.
As the retro marketing train slowly and disturbingly approaches my young adulthood I keep running across comics projects that play on my fond memories of 1990’s comics with upsetting precision. The best of these is absolutely The Wild Storm, a 24-issue, ugh, maxi-series, I’m sorry for that word, it sounds like an expensive bacteria panel your doctor runs when his first two diagnoses fail, merging all the disparate high-concept characters from Jim Lee’s ridiculous Wildstorm Universe into a single cohesive narrative. This is an insane task undertaken by an insane man, Warren Ellis, who remains a writer whose work I will read in pretty much any form, prose or comics. Ellis is particularly interesting because he and Alan Moore came along at a time when Wildstorm, which had formed because Lee and a few other artists were sick of being shortchanged by Marvel and wanted to own the characters they drew, needed some solid writing to guide what would otherwise have continued to be very shoddy knock-offs of Marvel’s several X-Men teams. The comics had been mildly fun for a while before Moore and Ellis came along but the artists had largely either moved on to greener pastures or gotten so wealthy they didn’t need to work for a page rate anymore, and without Lee’s over-rendered art, it was clear that there wasn’t a lot holding, say, the WildC.A.T.S together conceptually. Moore and Ellis reinvented the WildC.A.T.S and Stormwatch respectively and turned the whole superhero universe into a big Le Carré-but-with-heat-vision spy story of double agents and shadowy intelligence operations that stretched across time and space in sci-fi ways. It was great; I still go back and reread old issues from time to time, and it launched a number of worthy careers, notably Brubaker and Phillips’s (see above). In the new book, Ellis, with a really remarkable and precise artist named Jon-Davis Hunt, is weaving together a big, action-packed super-narrative that thus far focuses on Angela Spica, a character who went by The Engineer in Ellis’s great superhero book The Authority 17 years ago, and treats the various super-teams as rival intelligence firms looking for competitive advantages with Angie and her budding science-powers caught in the middle. I dig it a lot.
Garth Ennis is suddenly everywhere: With the mildly shadowy comics company Aftershock, he has a moderately preachy spy-comedy comic called Jimmy’s Bastards with art by Russ Braun, whom I like (I find this book very funny not least because of Braun’s gift for faces; many of you may not, which would be reasonable, and I may be ashamed that I found it funny in ten years, the way I feel about Ennis and the late Steve Dillon’s Preacher now); he’s doing a very enjoyable Hanna-Barbera-branded Dastardly and Muttley comic for DC because God is cruel; and best of all, he’s returned to a character everyone now loves to hate because of the dumb Netflix TV show, The Punisher. Disclosure: I love The Punisher. I am a pacifist and do not like violence in real life one little bit but Ennis’s take on the character is just devastating in the pathos he manages to wring from a stoic serial killer. Part of it is that Ennis is an annoying military history wonk and he can go toe-to-toe with anybody who cares to try on the topic of World War II aircraft or machine gun manufacturing contracts (this is what ruined the pacing of big sections of his series The Boys at Dynamite, incidentally; he got so interested in making up plausible fake military-historical details that he completely derailed the story he was telling), and Frank Castle—The Punisher—is a canonically a Vietnam veteran. So Ennis has set Punisher: The Platoon during the legendary Tet Offensive, and it’s killer so far, largely because he’s working with the amazing Goran Parlov, an artist who didn’t get a chance to hit his stride while he was working monthly with Ennis on the last few arcs of his justly celebrated Punisher: MAX run, almost certainly because of deadlines. Even there, he was doing suspiciously good work; it turns out that when he has a decent lead time, his stuff is genuinely beautiful. (Attentive readers already knew this from Starlight, but Ennis writes a better story than Mark Millar in general.)
I thought I’d mention that DC has reprinted Alan Davis’s gorgeous JLA: The Nail series in an oversized hardcover; it’s a spectacular book and Davis deserves a place in the pantheon alongside other writer-artists of superhero stuff like Frank Miller and Walt Simonson. For a few years not long ago Marvel seemed to happily publish basically whatever Davis wanted to draw; that was a good policy and I hope they re-adopt it or someone else comes along to do likewise. Anyway I thought I’d list my favorite Justice League stories because that dumb movie is coming out. Here they are:
2. The Nail
3. JLA: Earth-2
4. Heaven’s Ladder
5. New Maps of Hell
6. Formerly Known as the Justice League
There’s only six of ’em. Them’s the breaks.