All-Rounder Meguru vol. 3

May 22, 2017

Hiroki Endo’s MMA-manga continues on in its own appealingly low-key fashion.  After the (perhaps unsurprising) finish to Maki’s match from the previous volume the focus shifts back to Meguru and his ongoing struggle to get better.  While he’s slowly developing his technique and refining his ability to copy moves on the fly from others, he still lacks the strength needed to compete with tougher opponents.  Much of vol. 3 focuses on Meguru’s growth as a grappler within the title’s grounded aesthetic.  I think this approach for a fighting manga is still pretty novel even though I’ll admit that some might find mangaka Hiroki Endo’s approach just a little dull.  Endo does spice things up a bit with some goofy humor, mostly from the introduction of skilled judo practitioner Momo Aikawa, which is appreciated.


The really interesting stuff takes place between what I’ve described above as we get to see what Meguru’s old (former?) friend Takashi gets up to when he’s not training or fighting.  After his latest fight, he meets up with his sugar mama, Miyuki, who has a personal request.  One of her former hostesses fell in with a low-class yakuza thug and wound up in the hospital after said thug beat her really bad one day.  Miyuki wants this guy to be taught a lesson, and Takashi turns her down only to find out later that one of his co-workers from the bar he waiters at has taken the job in the hopes of getting in good with the local gang.


This leads to some, how shall we say, real-world applications of the fighting techniques that Takashi has been utilizing in the ring.  It’s a brutally efficient sequence that showcases not only the young man’s skills, but the theory behind their application as well.  I found it easy to appreciate this thoughtful approach along with the interesting twist where Takashi finds out there was more going on than he was aware of.  This thread is also further evidence that the mangaka isn’t afraid to bring in more complex subject matter than we’re used to seeing in fighting manga, which is also appreciated.  So if you’re like me and want to see more of this, it’s best you go out and buy a copy to download right now.  Kodansha hasn’t solicited any more volumes of this series yet, and it would really suck if ANOTHER of Endo’s manga wound up being unfinished out here.

Deadly Class vol. 5: Carousel

May 21, 2017

The main reason vol. 4 of this series only scored an honorable mention on my “Best of 2016” list was because I didn’t believe the death of a major character from its last few pages was genuine.  Now that vol. 5 is here I can say that I WAS RIGHT!  Said character returns in a blistering one-off where their skills are put to the test against the Mexican Mafia.  Creators Rick Remender and Wes Craig have consistently demonstrated that they know how to put together exceptional action sequences for this series and this is one of their best.  Not just for the sheer amount of carnage on display, but for the emotional catharsis present in the story as well.  I don’t want to give too much away (well, any more than I already have) so I’ll just say that it represents a rare instance where the struggle of the protagonists is rewarded appropriately.  Well, compared to the rest of Remender’s work at any rate.


Back in the world of King’s Dominion, however, the storytelling isn’t too shabby either.  The new school year brings with it freshmen and a re-adjustment of power within the ranks of the ruling class.  Expert assassin Saya wants nothing to do with either, but finds herself dragged into both when she’s assigned a new pledge -- a devout Christian girl from Africa -- and targeted by the school council for being the headmaster’s favorite.  Oh, and her yakuza brother from Japan has finally found out where she is and is preparing a trip to get her and the family sword she wields back for himself.


You could say that the schoolbound parts of this volume are business as usual for “Deadly Class.”  The catch would be that business there has always been pretty good and the new additions to the cast are pretty great with Helmut, the metal-loving KGB-hating dungeon master from Germany, proving to be the new standout.  We also get a freshman mixer full of drama and (figurative) open wounds, a hilariously warped D&D session, and one of the best extended fart jokes in recent memory.  There are some sections where the dialogue feels like a very on-the-nose examination of the trends of the era and the school sections ends with one of its characters in a very bad place that they probably should’ve seen coming.  They’re minor issues and not nearly enough to stop me from coming back to this consistently great series.

Invincible vol. 23: Full House

May 20, 2017

Savor the title of this volume because it’s likely the last we’ll see of “Invincible’s” traditional naming scheme when it comes to these things.  I’m expecting the titles of its last two volumes to be “The End of All Things, Part One” and “Part Two,” respectively and this volume really does read like a buildup towards the finale.  When we last saw Mark Grayson he was confronted with the cruel reality that he had lost five years after returning to the present from his trip to the past.  Now he has to deal with getting to know his six-year-old daughter Terra and finding out how his wife Eve coped in his absence.  While the narrative doesn’t shy away from some of the more complicated parts of Mark re-adjusting to his new life they are dealt with rather swiftly in the first half of the volume.  It’s all handled decently enough, but it feels like writer Robert Kirkman wanted to move on to more important things.  Such as the building of Thragg’s All-New Viltrumite Empire.


The former ruler of the Viltrumites has been busy in the time that Mark has been gone and is now a genuine threat to the galaxy.  However, Mark is in no hurry to rejoin the fight after losing five years.  If you’re thinking that it’s only a matter of time before Thragg brings the fight to him, then you get a gold star.  In fact, this is probably one of the more conventionally plotted volumes of “Invincible” to come along in a while.  There are a few twists here and there -- like with Anissa’s current domestic situation -- but the broad strokes of the narrative play out about as you’d expect.  It’s just the tiniest bit disappointing for a series that has thrived on breaking with superhero conventions over the years.


Still, there is still plenty of entertainment to be had from seeing the various cast members interact with each other in a normal fashion in what may be the last time before the finale.  Returning artist and co-creator Corey Walker also does a stellar job in handling all of the emotion in the story as well as the gut-punching, torso-ripping action that caps it off.  I’ll admit that I’m not entirely cool with the get out of jail free card Kirkman throws Mark and Eve at the end of the volume.  Even if it has been done before, I’m wondering how it’ll be addressed to maintain the drama going into the final arc.  I’m fairly certain Kirkman has an idea about that as the storytelling confidence on display here makes me ready for “The End of All Things.”

Captain America: Steve Rogers vol. 2 — The Trial of Maria Hill

May 19, 2017

Much of this volume reads like a masterclass in trolling people who can’t stand the idea of Steve Rogers as a secret agent of Hydra.  This time around it’s revealed that Steve is going to have to rely on the help of his best friend in the whole world in order for his plan to succeed.  Who is this friend?  None other than Helmut Zemo!  He also engineers an alien attack on Earth in order to gauge the capabilities of the Alpha Flight program, goes demon-hunting in Scotland to swing the votes in the titular trial, almost poisons comatose comrade Jack Flag, and is revealed to have nearly done the same for the man who made him a super soldier, Abraham Erskine.  Mind you, the present-day stuff is being done at the same time as Steve is trying to undermine the Red Skull’s current plan and seize Hydra for himself.  Not to be left out in the shenanigans arms race of this volume, Maria Hill tries to save her position as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. by offering up a planet-sized bribe at her tribunal.


I can see how these things would rub a lot of Cap fans the wrong way and that’s part of the fun.  Writer Nick Spencer appears to take a perverse kind of delight in putting forth the idea that longtime enemies Captain America and Baron Zemo (Jr.) are actually best friends, and that a pre-”Operation Rebirth” Steve attempted to assassinate Dr. Erskine under orders.  He knows he can get away with stuff like this because it’ll all be retconned away by the end of “Secret Empire.”  Marvel has even said as much, urging fans to be patient and they’ll get the Cap they know and love back at the end of the event.  This doesn’t surprise me since it was obvious that was going to be the endgame for this storyline.  Spencer is clearly having fun with it, both in the flashbacks and in the present day where Cap still manages to project an outwardly heroic exterior while advancing his sinister agenda.  Jesus Saiz provides some wonderfully textured artwork, with Javier Pina doing a capable fill-in job, and I found the whole thing to be pretty enjoyable.  Whether or not you’ll agree with me all depends on if you recognize the trolling going on here and are amused by it too.

Comic Picks #237: Revival

May 17, 2017

Does Tim Seely and Mike Norton's (quirky) rural noir (horror) series stick the landing in its final volume?


Ajin: Demi-Human vol. 9

May 15, 2017

I think I preferred this series back when it was on the verge of becoming a trainwreck.  Even if “Ajin” was preparing to go off the rails at any moment, there was fun and excitement at the thought of seeing it happen.  This is compared to the series as it is now which is fairly generic when the bullets and body parts aren’t flying.  Take the sudden change of heart Sato’s right-hand-man, Tanaka, displays towards two female characters in this volume.  After taking down Izumi and revealing her to be a demi-human in the process, he goes back to kill the witnesses and smash their cellphones.  Later, he winds up saving the secretary who oversaw his torture while he was in the hands of the government.  Why would he do either of these things?  Because that’s what characters like him -- subordinates to the main antagonist who are starting to have second thoughts about their line of work -- do in these stories.  Some characters do die in this volume.  I’m not sure that anyone will be bothered to care since one of them didn’t have a name in the dramatis personae at the front of the volume and the only one that has had a decent amount of page time goes out in a predictably tragic and manly way.


Is there anything about this volume which rises above mere competence?  Well, the action scenes are as slick as always and some interesting tricks regarding how demi-humans can use their regenerative abilities and IBMs are shown off here.  Everything else is straight out of the genre playbook.  Which means that while I know I’m not supposed to have any sympathy for a psycho killer like Sato he still remains the most interesting character in the series because he’s committed to his cause and clearly enjoying himself in the process.  When he offers to cut off Kei’s head in order to get our protagonist to utilize his powers in more creative ways, I was actually kinda rooting for it to happen.  If nothing else it would’ve saved us from the painfully generic verbal throwdown Kei has with Ko about leaving that closes out this volume and arc.  Things are left fairly wide open with regards to where the narrative could go from here.  At this point, I feel somewhat confident in guessing that “anywhere interesting” won’t be one of those places.

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth vol. 15 — Cometh the Hour

May 14, 2017

I was awaiting this volume with one big expectation.  After all, Mike Mignola provided an end to “Hellboy’s” saga last year, and delivered the final proper volume of “Abe Sapien” leaving “B.P.R.D.” to be the only title to advance the ongoing story of the Mignolaverse.  With word that it would be coming to an end as well, I was expecting this to provide the finale for this vast, weird, and thrilling universe created by Mignola.  We’ve even been told what to expect:  With this age of man coming to an end it’s down to the members of the B.P.R.D. to fight for the best of mankind’s essence to pass over into the next age.  More than anything else, that’s what I wanted to see in this volume!


However, if you’ve been paying attention to the solicitations from Dark Horse you’ll know that there’s a new “B.P.R.D.” series called “The Devil You Know” starting in the next month or two.  It’s not a flashback or anything as the solicitation text made it clear that it’s following up on the aftermath of the story in this volume.  I was… disappointed to learn that as it meant “Cometh the Hour” wasn’t going to deliver on what I wanted to see here.

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Superman vol. 2: Trials of the Super Son

May 13, 2017

I want to like this series more than I actually do.  The setup of Superman being a new father is neat, I like his new son Jon, and we get to see the two of them go on adventures where dad can be as big a damn hero as he wants.  Whether it’s foiling some small-time robbers at the local county fair, escaping from Dinosaur Island with the last of the Losers, or helping Frankenstein and The Bride capture an intergalactic fugitive, these stories feel tailor-made for Superman to handle.

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Spider-Man: Miles Morales vol. 2

May 12, 2017

As far as getting an actual superhero story about Miles Morales’ adventures in the Marvel Universe, this volume is a step in the right direction.  The main issue here is that “Miles Negotiates the Fallout From ‘Civil War II’” isn’t really a proper story.  It starts off with our protagonist getting a call from Tony Stark to talk about the new Inhuman who can see the future through a precognitive version of profiling.  The narrative then goes on to touch upon a couple key events of the crossover while also weaving in story threads from the previous volume.  It makes for a choppy read where everything is pretty much defined by how the characters are reacting to events that are happening outside of the series.


It’s a testament to the solid character work from Bendis that this winds up being less of an issue than I’m making it sound.  Taking in the characters’ discussion of these events, whether it’s Miles coming to his dad about whether to join Stark’s side or not, or Miles’ Mom trying to find out what Jessica Jones knows about her son, the characters’ actions and emotions feel genuine and relatable.  Actually, all of the cast has something worthwhile to contribute to Miles’ struggle, from regular supporting cast members Ganke and Fabio “Goldballs” Medina” to guest-star Ms. Marvel.  So when they all come together in the next-to-last story to help Miles come to grips with his showdown in D.C. with Captains America and Marvel, and Iron Man it winds up being cathartic and heartwarming in all the right ways.


Another reason all the character drama works so well is because the artist illustrating most of it, Nico Leon, has a really appealing style.  Leon has a style that at once appears effortlessly grounded, but also allows for enough exaggeration to make the characters’ actions lively along with the action.  Sara Pichelli returns for the final story, a one-off detailing the new complications in Miles’ dad Jefferson’s life now that he’s back working for S.H.I.E.L.D.  It’s a solid piece of work that shows, when he puts his mind to it, Bendis can take a familiar setup from another (spy) genre and make it effortlessly work within the context of the Marvel Universe.  Overall, this volume shows that even if we’re still left waiting for a proper superhero story about Miles’ adventures in this universe, having him talk through his issues with friends and family is a setup for a good read nonetheless.

Karnak: The Flaw in All Things

May 10, 2017

A strain of bitter cynicism flows through all of Warren Ellis’ work for Marvel.  Usually this manifests as characters openly mocking superhero conventions while expressing their friendly contempt for their comrades-in-tights.  When done right, this can enliven familiar setups as seen in “Nextwave:  Agents of H.A.T.E.”  Applied incorrectly and you get a strained superhero bitch-fest like “Avengers:  Endless Wartime" that makes you wonder how these people can function as a team at all.  Ellis “Karnak” miniseries is probably the first time this bitter cynicism has been the whole point of the exercise.  We’re introduced to the Inhuman who trained himself to see the flaw in all things contemplating a stone cube and telling his students at the Tower of Wisdom that they are no better than these stones before he’s whisked off to a S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost in the North Atlantic.  It turns out that a teenager who has recently undergone terrigenesis was kidnapped by an A.I.M. splinter group.  Karnak agrees to get the kid back for a million-dollar fee from S.H.I.E.L.D. and, from the parents, the single thing which allows them to believe that the universe is a kind and wonderful place.


That should give you a pretty good idea of the kind of person we’re dealing with here.  Ellis paints a picture of a man who was born without any gifts, denied the chance to change through terrigenesis, and then spent the rest of his life learning how to break things and bring everyone down to his level.  Make no mistake, this is a vicious and mean-spirited book to read but that actually makes it feel somewhat refreshing compared to most other Marvel comics.  It works because that approach fits with the character of Karnak as established here and isn’t just doing these things for the sake of doing them.  The writer’s approach is also distractingly on-the-nose at some points, though his random bits of nastiness don’t feel as out-of-place as they have in his previous Marvel work.  Gerardo Zaffino and Roland Boschi provide some effectively warped artwork that further makes this not a book for everyone, but one that I found to be an interesting portrait of a person who exploits the flaws in others because he doesn’t want a better life for himself than that.