Robert Kirkman has said that if it wasn’t for the zombies, then “The Walking Dead” wouldn’t be anything more than a boring soap opera. The worst thing that can be said about the past seven episodes of this season is that there has been more than one occasion where his words have been proven right. Things started off strongly with the season premiere and the two episodes that followed, but a lot of what has happened since has felt like the series has been spinning its wheels. Sure I liked seeing Darryl hallucinate Merle, Glenn and Maggie’s developing relationship, and -- even though it was utterly wrongheaded -- the efforts of the group to get the zombie out of the well were good for a laugh. What has been missing from these episodes, however, is a sense of reclaiming what has been lost in this new world.
It has been almost an entire year since we got a proper collection of this series, and the wait was worth it. “Highland Laddie” was a mini-series that ran concurrent with the main title, and while it had a few things that were relevant to the overall story, I’ve been looking forward to finding out what happens next. With the series set to wrap up around the end of next year this volume acts as the “calm before the storm” as writer Garth Ennis starts the build-up and gives us a whole lot of answers about longstanding questions in the process. Most of these center around former “Boys” member and founder Greg Mallory in the first two arcs, “Proper Planning and Preparation” and “Barbary Coast” as we find out the specifics of why he left and then how he came to came to form the team, respectively. The final story is where this volume takes its title from and it starts off as a kind of back-to-basics approach with Hughie and Butcher investigating the death of a transexual prostitute who had connections to Jack from Jupiter, a member of The Seven. Everything seems to Jack being the culprit in this case, but it’s so convenient that Butcher can’t help but think that -- like the title -- they’re being taken for a ride on a collision course with The Seven.
Thankfully Ennis has reined in his sophomoric/scatalogical impulses here, because while there’s still plenty of nasty stuff here it doesn’t distract from the story like it did in previous volumes. Plus, the bits involving Monkey were actually pretty funny. That said, this volume is all about setting things up and getting everyone into place for the inevitable showdown between the The Boys and The Seven/Vought American. While the series has up to this point been mostly about showing us what superheroes would really be like in real life, it appears that “The Boys” will ultimately be an indictment of the excesses of the military/industrial complex, which isn’t too far removed from what Ennis did on “Punisher MAX.” However, the indicting won’t be done through the organizations themselves -- Vought-American and the C.I.A. in this case -- as their evil is more banal than anything else, but the monsters they’ve created. Though the climax will certainly be the throwdown between the two teams, I’m betting that the falling action will be more interesting than that. Someone in this world is going to have to account for all that has been done in the course of the series, and seeing how they do that should be something to watch.
The first volume of this series was something that I wanted to like more than I actually did. A thoroughly irreverent take on some traditional fantasy tropes, its wiseass sensibility only took it so far. Unless you’re very, VERY good, then at some point you’ll actually need to start adding some actual substance to the style that is the foundation of your narrative. For volume two, writer Jim Zub has decided that the way to proceed is to add even MORE style along with a tiny bit of depth as well.
The first volume of this felt a bit too much like “Lex Luthor Team-Up,” or “Versus” as was more often the case. Having Luthor travelling the world to find black orbs that were supposedly the remnants of the Black Lantern rings from “Blackest Night” felt more like just an excuse for writer Paul Cornell to match the character against some of the nastiest inhabitants of the DCU. And Death of The Endless. Mind you, I don’t think that giving Cornell the license to do that is a bad thing as he clearly has a great understanding of the character and his motivations, and the man writes great dialogue as well, but those six issues still came off as feeling more slight than they should’ve. Then I read this volume and everything fell into place.
(By the way, if you do have the first volume, you’ll REALLY want to re-read it before reading this one.)
Though the structure of this series tends towards the episodic, showcasing the various situations its cast of low-Earth-orbit window washers finds itself in, there have been hints of an uber-arc to tie everything together in previous volumes. You’d figure that with how young window washer Mitsu’s father disappeared all those years ago that mangaka Hisae Iwaoka would get around to explaining it at some point. There’s also engineer Sohta’s encounter with a mysterious scientist in who wants to make a journey to Earth in the previous volume which sounded even more interesting. As it turns out, both of these treads wind up coming together here in a well-orchestrated bit of synchronicity. Now this might be seen as a hopeful moment for our young hero, there are some very sinister undercurrents to this secret trip to Earth that bring some welcome suspense and edge to this normally very low-key series.
While this is a good thing in and of itself, the other stories being told here are also pretty worthwhile. The series most distinctive character, the very big-hearted and VERY bald Mr. Kageyama, finds out the toll that window washing has taken on his body, and makes some surprisingly mature decisions about his future. We’re also shown Mitsu studying for the first-class washer test, and making contact with a strange radio presence that has the side effect of getting the normally very unfriendly Makoto to open up a little. It may not be improving by leaps and bounds, but this series continues to get better with each volume.
Not only was this worth the year-long wait from the release of vol. 9, but my reaction upon finishing it was basically, “Damn! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” “Real” is in a position similar to other series like “Berserk,” “Black Lagoon,” “Yotsuba&!” and “Blade of the Immortal,” where the long waits between volumes isn’t dictated by sales but by the fact that the English release has now caught up to the Japanese release. Or, in the case of “Real” and “Berserk,” it’s staggered to mirror the year-long wait between volumes in Japan as the latest installments in both series are currently out over there. In any case, such a long wait between volumes means that you really need to deliver the goods to keep the audience invested in the story, and while everyone knows that I don’t think that’s a problem with “Blade,” this latest volume shows that it’s probably not going to be an issue with “Real” either.
I wouldn’t trade “New X-Men,” “All-Star Superman,” or his ongoing “Batman” run for anything, but I still wish Grant Morrison would find the time to do more weird and imaginative creator-owned series like this. As the story goes, Joe is your average teenager who is currently having the mother of all diabetic freak-outs. Now instead of slipping into a coma like reality would dictate, he’s slipping into a fantasy world populated by animated versions of his toys, an anthropomorphic version of his pet rat, and new takes on familiar people from his world. Though having the real world interact with a fictional one (and vice versa) has been a recurring theme in Morrison’s work (see also: “Animal Man” and “The Filth”) he finds a new angle here by constantly showing us how Joe’s “real world” corresponds to the “fictional” one. Yes, most of this may be happening in the title character’s head, but Morrison blurs it to the point where it ceases to matter. Whether Joe is trying to make it downstairs to get a soda to fend off his diabetic coma, or if he’s “The Dying Boy” come to fend off King Death -- you’ll be invested in his survival either way.
Now while Morrison’s name may be the chief draw here, most of the credit for making all this work goes to artist Sean Murphy. I’ve said before that the man would be perfectly suited to drawing “Hellblazer” on a regular basis, as he has Sean Phillips’ ability to make the utterly real and completely fantastic seem believable in his hands. Here, in addition to drawing Joe’s home, he’s tasked with bringing a fantasy world based on said house and the boy’s toys to life. It’s a difficult task, but Murphy makes it look like it wasn’t a challenge at all. You can even tell that he was having fun as he peppers the world with ersatz versions of recognizable toys like Legos, Transformers, Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe, familiar D.C. icons like Batman and Superman and more. It helps give the work personality, and if you’re of a certain age like I am, and grew up with this stuff, then you’ll appreciate it even more. With that being said, it should come as no surprise that I think this is certainly worth your money in hardcover, or the inevitable paperback.
Earlier this year it was announced that artist Lee Bermejo would be writing and drawing a special Christmas-themed “Batman” original graphic novel. Though I’ve known the man to be very good a drawing characters and settings that have a dark, “realistic” look to them but never come off as distractingly photo-referenced (in the way that Greg Land’s work often does) , I was a bit wary of this. After all, it was going to be his first work without regular collaborator Brian Azzarello, with whom he did “Batman/Deathblow,” “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel,” and “Joker,” and whose involvement was the main reason I picked up those other series. Then I learned that not only was this going to be Christmas-themed, but a new take on Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” Long story short, I went and ordered it anyway because I figured at least it’d give me something interesting to write about even if it was terrible.
The end result is an artistic tour-de-force (no, really) and one of the best-looking comics I’ve seen all year, with a story that at least has the decency to be interesting in the ways it fails.
In his first volume of “Punisher MAX,” Jason Aaron did a great job of staking out his own territory with the title by acknowledging the character’s roots in the Marvel Universe and making Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk the main antagonist. Here, he shows us something else that will only help separate his run from the character-defining work of Garth Ennis: His run is going to be an ongoing story. Yes, we’re introduced to the MAX version of Bullseye, but there’s a clear sense of continuity with the characters that shows us this is only the second part of a larger arc.