It’s clear from the start that Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s story of sex, murder and live TV really wants to be the “L.A. Confidential” of the Golden Age of television. Taking place in 1951, it strips back the veneer of wholesomeness and civility that most of the entertainment from the time was built on to reveal its very seedy underbelly. Does this make for an entertaining story? Well, generally, yeah. If nothing else it offers more proof to my theory that Fraction does better work when he’s not shackled to a project that centers around A-list superheroes.
I’m pretty sure I mentioned this in my original podcast about this series, but one of the reasons I liked the first “season” so much was that it reflected the experiences of myself and my friends in our anime club in college. We didn’t talk as much about hentai games or doujinshi, but not only did our group still had lots of passionate discussions about anime and manga, we lived in the shadow of a more popular group and became a far more close-knit circle of friends as a result. There’s also the fact that we had a direct analogue to “Genshiken’s” Kanako Ohno as well. Unlike the title club here, our group arguably became too close-knit to the point where it eventually morphed into a weekly hangout for us and new members stopped showing up. Eventually, the club ceased to exist at the college when our last member graduated.
(Despite what the numbers on the side of these volumes say, you won’t find the beginning of this run here. The first three issues by Allred and Fraction were collected in “Fantastic Four vol. 1: New Arrivals, New Departures” which I reviewed a while back.)
I know I always put the writer’s name first when talking about a series, but not this time. These two volumes are Mike Allred’s show. He may not have illustrated all of them -- Joe Quinones pops in for two issues and hits a nice balance between stylistic consistency and doing things his way -- yet his quirky, off-kilter sensibilities are ingrained in virtually every page. This is good because while the majority of the stories here are standard superhero fluff. If you’re interested in a sampling of the plots on display here: She Hulk goes out on a date! Medusa gets mind-controlled by the Wizard! A version of Johnny Storm arrives from the future to warn of dire threats! The threat of Doom the Annihilating Conqueror is faced! Though these stories may play out in ways that you’ve seen before, Allred’s style makes them move with an unexpected freshness.
Though this isn’t to say that Matt Fraction is inessential to the proceedings, he’s written better stuff elsewhere. Sales of this comic, and the main “Fantastic Four” title, would appear to bear me out as they tanked so hard that Fraction was pulled off them to focus on his commitments to the “Inhumanity” event… before being replaced by Charles Soule on the main “Inhuman” title. (One can only wonder about the conversations that were had that led to this chain of events playing out in real life.) It can be tough for any series to overcome the loss of the writer that was driving it, but “FF” had two key advantages here. As I said before, this is Mike Allred’s show and the writer brought in to work with him was his brother Lee and the issues they worked together on show them to be very much in sync. Also, Lee was working off Fraction’s plots so the main thread about Scott Lang getting revenge on Dr. Doom for the death of his daughter is still followed through and manages a satisfying build and climax in the end. Though the abbreviated nature of this run may only merit it a footnote in the history of “Fantastic Four,” it’s still a great showcase for the skills of its lead artist and good superhero-driven fun.
The first volume of this series was an anthology that worked as nearly all anthologies do: the quality of stories it featured was decidedly uneven. However, amongst them there was one entry that stood above all the rest. “Tesla’s Electric Sky Schooner” not only featured an imaginative and fast-paced script from “Robo” creator Brian Clevinger (who also wrote all of the stories in the volume) and fantastic art from the team known as Gurihiru that made the story the standout entry in that volume. There was much gushing about it in my review and I even went so far as to say that I’d love to see a full-length tale featuring Gurihiru on art.
Now I had no idea what Clevinger had planned for the next volume of “Real Science Adventures,” but my dreams were half-answered here. This is a full-length story featuring Nikola Tesla’s “Centurions of Science” as they work together to stop an evil industrial triumvirate from taking over the United States. However, Gurihiru is nowhere to be seen with the six issues collected here featuring six different artists. This turns out to be a dealbreaker as none of them are on the same level as that team in terms of quality or storytelling. Sadly, the story being told here comes off as a huge disappointment in terms of the expectations I had based on the original short.
Though he’s meant to be the star of this series, Miyamoto Musashi has been the biggest drag on its momentum for a while now. We start to see that change with this volume as his sojourn in the wilds finally starts to develop a point. The swordsman acknowledges early on that he can’t beat his rival Kojiro as trying to fight someone like him would be like trying to beat water. So Musashi spends months trying to learn the ways of the land. He helps the kid Iori build a runoff canal outside of his hut to deal with flooding during the rainy season, and the villagers even pitch in even though they don’t quite know what to make of this strange samurai. Then, Musashi tries to make a rice paddy field and only gets hassled by the one arrogant villager who’s capable of growing good rice. This all prepares to come to naught when emissaries from Kokura castle show up to “recruit” the samurai by any means necessary, and are subsequently followed by locusts.
It’s taken a while to get here, but this arc of “Vagabond” is basically another riff on the trope of the protagonist going off to train and learn better techniques through unorthodox means. Only without a training montage or “Eye of the Tiger”-style motivational music. As is the case for a series that is basically the Shonen Jump “I’m going to be the best at [fill in the blank” storyline re-staged as art, mangaka Takehiko Inoue has the skill to pull it off. The man also knows when things need to be taken seriously and when it’s good to back off and laugh a little as well. We see that in how Iori’s relationship with Musashi develops, as the samurai makes a terrible surrogate parent but winds up being a good role model almost in spite of himself. Things end with the indication that our protagonist’s time in the boonies is coming to an end and things can finally start ramping up for his inevitable confrontation with Kojiro and the long-advertised end of the series. Though there’s an upward trend in quality and momentum over the course of this volume, I’ll still be glad to see the end of this arc.
The state of Dark Horse’s manga publishing efforts has been an ongoing concern of mine over the years as we’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of manga they’ve released as well as a complete lack of new titles that aren’t from established authors, or don’t have a significant media tie-in. There’s also the fact that three of their longest-running titles are now coming to an end. “Blade of the Immortal” wrapped up in Japan last year as did “Gantz.” Then, last week, I got a huge shock as it was announced that “Oh My Goddess!” is reaching its conclusion after over 25 years. This is shocking because I was certain that mangaka Kosuke Fujishima would be working on this until the day he died, given that the title had ran for so long already. Well, that and the fact that if he couldn’t be bothered to stop working on it after achieving creative bankruptcy then nothing was going to stop him. Even so, I have to admit a certain morbid curiosity to start picking it up again to see how it all ends.
Assuming it is the end, that is. Anime News Network’s article also mentions that a “special announcement” is planned regarding the title for June. I’m guessing that it means one of two things: either an announcement that a new anime series covering the rest of the manga will be starting up, or that we’ll be getting “New Oh My Goddess!” later this year. My cynical side is leaning towards the latter scenario. If that’s not the case, then this is effectively another nail in the coffin of Dark Horse as an active publisher of manga. I’m still convinced that in a couple years we’ll see their manga publishing division reduced to nothing more than managing and repackaging their substantial backlist.
Unless “New Lone Wolf and Cub” hits big. As in, big enough to get the company to start bringing over more work from Kazuo Koike, like his remaining collaborations with original “Lone Wolf” artist Goseki Kojima. The first volume is due in June, so we’ll have some indication if that’ll happen then.
If you’re wondering what the success of “Hawkeye” by Fraction, Aja and co. has wrought, look no further. The success of that title has not only convinced Marvel that unique creator-driven approaches are necessary for any title starring a B-list character to succeed, but that the “street level” approach to characters not necessarily known for it can succeed as well. Enter Nick Spencer, of “Morning Glories” fame, and artist Steve Lieber who have set out to chronicle what it’s like being one of Spider-Man’s D-list villains. “Superior Foes” is a very mean-spirited book starring some fairly unlikeable characters, yet its darkly comic approach works and delivers one of the most entertaining Marvel comics I’ve read so far this year.
It would seem to appear that Marvel thinks that comic shop owners aren’t able to properly gauge demand for their titles. After all, why would they put out an ad specifically telling retailers that they haven’t ordered enough copies of the latest “She Hulk” series? The last time I remember them doing something like this was years ago with the “X-Men: Deadly Genesis” miniseries when Joe Quesada mentioned that it was “very significant” to the line’s stories. That turned out to be true as it introduced Gabriel Summers, re-introduced Professor X in the wake of “House of M” and set up the “Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire” arc; though, the likely reason it had been under-ordered in the first place was because Marvel had spent years putting out random X-miniseries which did nothing but weaken the value of the line’s brand.
Still, telling retailers that they don’t know how to order their comics is a real dick move. If the comic keeps selling out with them, then they’ll obviously adjust their orders accordingly. That’s how you get sales patterns like the one “Hawkeye” wound up with (before its schedule went to hell, anyway). Is the new “She Hulk” good enough to warrant this kind of special attention and sales? I’ll let you know once the collected edition arrives in a couple months.
In other news, Patton Oswalt is joining “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” for a few episodes. I am encouraged not just because I like his acting and stand-up comedy, but because it’s almost the first step in his implementation of this.
In this volume we get a lot of answers. Were you wondering what happened to the evil Invincibles that Angstrom Levy brought over back in vol. 12? That’s explained here and it isn’t pretty. Do you have any curiosity regarding what Robot has been up to ever since he and Monster Girl returned from the Flaxan dimension? We find that out and it leads into the title’s next big storyline. What about Angstrom Levy, who is featured so prominently on this volume’s back cover as returning “to take revenge on Invincible and all he holds dear?” His storyline is probably the least satisfying of the answers in this volume. In fact, after the epic Dinosaurus conflict in the previous volume most of the issues here show creator/writer Robert Kirkman trying to make the dialing back of the tension as interesting and meaningful as possible before he ramps things up again at the end.
We’ve got another late addition to the previous month’s Image’s solicitations after “Stray Bullets” declassified its solicitations. This time it’s a new series called “Trees” from Warren Ellis and artist Jason Howard. Information about it is scarce at the moment, as all we know is that it’s about giant aliens that have landed on Earth and done nothing. They do this nothing by standing completely still which is meant to indicate that they refuse to recognize us or the fact that we’re alive… So yeah, that’s kind of a terrible solicitation and if it wasn’t for the fact that this was coming from Ellis I doubt I’d be inclined to give it a look. The larger issue here is that with the writing publishing something new through Image, I’m reminded about the other title he did through the company with Ben Templesmith years ago. Even though the first volume of “Fell” didn’t end on a cliffhanger, the creators have indicated that there’s still more to the story. We’re just left without any idea when we’re going to see it.