It’s easy to see how this series broke new ground at the time in mainstream comics. The overall “madness” of the premise gives us lots of interesting stories as Shade wanders around Santa Fe trying not to feel guilty while insect legs grow out of his head, and his showdown with the American Scream in a megamart-styled Wild West. Still, time marches on and a lot of the boundary-pushing that was cool then comes off as rather quaint now. What makes this volume readable is how writer Peter Milligan keeps to a logical progression of events in this stories, so that even if they are awash in weirdness the plot remains understandable and fairly easy to follow. The most surprising thing here is looking at artist Chris Bachalo’s style then and marveling at how it has changed over the years. There are kernels of what would become his contemporary style here, but his older style still works pretty well in terms of bringing the surreal to life on the page.
Some of you have already heard that this collection is a real showcase for the talents of artist J.H. Williams III -- and you heard right! I truly doubt that I’ll see a better illustrated superhero comic this year as the man’s genius for page and panel layout (conveying action and story without sacrificing clarity) is visible on every page. His chameleonic ability to change styles is also on show, and while it could’ve degenerated into gimmickry, it serves each scene well. While the art is the main attraction here, the story by Greg Rucka is also pretty good. Not only is his gift for effortlessly writing strong female characters on show here, he also pulls off the doubly difficult task of making Kathy Kane’s lesbianism a necessary part of the story, and on making her motivations distinct from all of Gotham’s other vigilantes. The problem is that Rucka does too good a job of grounding Kate’s backstory and character in the real world, to the point where the superhero elements seem out of place in her story. I won’t argue that a “religion of crime” is a great idea for the DC Universe, but here it almost comes off as being more silly than anything else. That being said, even as someone who appreciates comics more for their writing than their art, this is still worth picking up in hardcover just to admire Williams III’s work.
You know, I like this series but the events of this volume were a real bummer. After being accepted into the Tokyo Space School, Asumi finds herself acclimating rather well to its curriculum and solidifying the friendships she began in the last volume. The problems begin when she finds out that if she becomes an astronaut, she’ll have to have a specially made suite to accommodate her -- a drain on the school’s strained budget. Making matters worse is that the teacher who brings this up has a grudge against Asumi’s father and while the plan to dismiss her is decried by the school faculty, one of the higher-ups privately asks him to get rid of her “quietly.” Then in the second “bonus story,” we see a young Asumi’s efforts to make friends with a girl who was injured in the rocket crash that her father was responsible for. I’d like to say it ends on a high note, but the “magical realism” employed to make it work didn’t feel right. Here’s hoping we get less depressing character drama in the next volume, and more focus on the cast’s training to become astronauts.
I don’t know if writer Ed Brubaker knew at the time that this will probably be the last we’ll see of “Criminal” for a while (artist Sean Phillips is busy with other projects including “The Dark Tower” and the follow-up to “Incognito” due later this year), but at least this volume begins the hiatus on a high note. “The Sinners” brings back Tracy Lawless, the ex-commando turned hired muscle from the second volume, and finds that he hasn’t adjusted well to working within Sebastian Hyde’s organization. So instead of using him for killing, Hyde puts him to work on solving the mystery behind the deaths of several made men in the city. It’s a foregone conclusion that Lawless’ investigation will lead him down a dark path of betrayal and violence, but the threats come from unexpected angles here and while our protagonist doesn’t exactly get a happy ending, it’s refreshing to see the main character in a noir thriller like this successfully administering his own brand of justice. My sole gripe with this volume is in the main character’s romance with Hyde’s wife which feels like it was dictated by genre conventions rather than organic character development.
This latest volume in what is shaping up to be writer Warren Ellis’ most substantial and best post-”Transmetropolitan” work (yes, even better than “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.”) not only answers some questions, but also raises new ones right out of their ashes. After a brief detour showing us the “world-ending” event that the kids performed six years ago, we pick right back up again to find out that Kait’s mystery assailant isn’t all that mysterious and witness firsthand the complications in Luke’s efforts to escape Whitechapel. It’s gratifying to see that Ellis has stuck with this series as the worldbuilding possibilities he’s set up here just beg to be explored and his always-excellent dialogue supports the convention-busting appeal of the cast. He also has a great artistic collaborator in Paul Duffield, whose art clearly has a “manga-style” bent to it without being slavishly devoted to one style or a particular set of conventions.
The last time I talked about this series, I mentioned how it was setting the stage for war journalist turned political player Matty Roth’s downfall. While Matty has proved adept at reporting and putting human faces on the crises of the DMZ, he has always been one step behind the political and military forces that shape the area. Even the one he voted and now works for, Parco Delgado. With that as a setup, the stage was set for him to have a downfall that would make the trials of Dash Bad Horse over in “Scalped” look like the day at the beach. Long story short, that is what happens and the result is an engrossing, if depressing, read.
That’s not how this volume starts off, though. In the opening arc, “No Future,” we get an inside look at the militia organization that has made its home in the ruins of the Empire State Building. These guys spend their time shut off from the outside world, engaging in group therapy, and affirming and re-affirming their bonds as comrades before heading out into the city to try and restore order. If that sounds like cultish behavior to you, then you’re not far off as we get to see the inner workings of their organization through the eyes of one of their soldiers, Tony, who lost his family when everyone got out on Evacuation Day.
While Tony finds some solace in this setup and in following the orders that come down from above, we see firsthand the toll that his survivor’s guilt takes on him and how he eventually commits to doing something you usually don’t hear about outside of the Middle East. It’s a well-drawn setup that gains added depth in the talks Tony has with his superiors. Though the people on his level may be good soldiers with lots of psychological issues, the people above them know how to manage that and find ways to use the political situation to their advantage. Everything in this story feels entirely plausible and is all the more compelling as a result, and due to Ryan Kelly’s art. Regular artist Riccardo Burchielli is no slouch, but as with Kelly’s other work with writer Brian Wood (“Local,” “Northlanders: The Cross + The Hammer,” and “The New York Four”) he shows that he’s not just talented at drawing scenery and depicting action, but that he can make his characters’ emotional states visible on the page.
As for the title story, things pick up with Matty announcing to the world that Parco’s government is now a nuclear power. This doesn’t sit well with what remains of the United States government and they immediately begin making plans to deal with it. In the meantime, we get a look at what Matty has become now that he has worked his way into a position of power within Parco’s organization. Previous volumes have shown that Matty has essentially gone and “drank the Kool-Aid” when it comes to his faith in the governor, and the results of that are shown here as he and the team of commandos assembled under his watch head out into the city to solve Parco’s problems using means both violent and non.
Things come to a head after Matty is attacked by U.S. troops and the location of Parco’s nuke is revealed. In these moments, we see that Parco is almost as canny a political operator as he has made himself out to be and that Matty is a petty fool who had no right to the power he was given. Much as I’d like to congratulate myself for seeing this coming, it’s still depressing since the outcome was so obvious (though the way it got there wasn’t). Also, much as the political maneuvering on every side of the conflict is engaging to watch, this is still a very depressing situation to watch unfold. I’m not about to suggest that Wood inject some of the over-the-top “How screwed is he now!” drama that Jason Aaron brings to “Scalped,” but a greater focus on the politics would make the events here more interesting.
That being said, I am still very interested in seeing where Wood goes with Matty from here. Cut off from his friends and family, a pariah in the most dangerous place on Earth, the smart thing for him to do would be to get the hell out of town and not look back. Yet Matty has never been one to do the smart thing, and it’ll be interesting to see him try to repair the bridges he’s burned in this volume. Assuming he survives, as there are lots of people in DMZ’s supporting cast who would be fine replacements for him as a main character.
Because not only can I not stop talking about this series, we've seen a lot of it this year as well.
The podcast will be coming either much later tonight or more likely tomorrow due to a bad day of epic proportions on the part of the uploader. In the meantime, this latest volume of “Jack of Fables” finds the series in transition. With all of its stories and supporting cast sent off to parts unknown in “The Great Fables Crossover,” it’s time for the series to find a new game. It does that by turning the titular Jack into a dragon (complete with a hoard of gold) and shifting the focus to his son, Jack Frost, as he tries to become a true hero. Naturally, things don’t go smoothly for either but it’s handled deftly with the series trademark wit, administered with just the right amount of self-awareness to keep things from becoming too precious. I do like the fact that they seem to be setting up a confrontation between the two Jacks, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they resolve it since writers Willingham and Sturges would never go for the obvious “dragon slaying” metaphor here.