Getting a special above-the-board mention this month is B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth #135. Why? Because the solicitation text mentions that this is the start of the final “Hell on Earth” arc. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the series. Were I a betting man, I’d assume that the series will be getting a new subtitle once this is all over. It’s worth noting that up until “B.P.R.D.” assumed its “Hell on Earth” subtitle, Mignola and Arcudi were pretty much just winging it in terms of the overall direction of the series. We got a lot of good stories out of that approach, but with the changeover came a new sense of purpose and a genuine “raising of the stakes” as it became clear that the end of the world is at hand and everyone is basically fighting to shape what comes next. Whatever that is, I look forward to reading about. I just hope that they can finally make the Black Flame into a compelling antagonist as his efforts to test the limits of his power are apparently the starting point for this arc.
I forgot to mention it in yesterday’s rundown of September’s solicitations, but this title is wrapping up its run with issue #24. That makes this the next-to-last volume and you can see the rush to wrap things up in the main story. First, we get a flashback illustrated by the title’s cover artist, Nathan Fox, which shows us how wild-haired FBP member Cicero DeLuca not only joined the organization, but went on to become a field agent instead of a researcher. Writer Simon Oliver cleverly inverts expectations by making the training academy for the organization one where the geeks who solve the physics problems are more highly valued than the jocks who have to actually go in and implement the solutions. Oliver also ties things into the main plot by having Cicero become inspired to change his focus after reading the writings of fellow FBP agent Adam Hardy’s father. We also get to see Cicero’s first real test as a field agent where things do not wrap up as tidily and heartwarmingly as you’d expect. Overall, this two-issue arc is one of the better storylines I’ve read in this series as it successfully fleshes out Mr. DeLuca’s character while offering some appealingly off-kilter art from Fox.
Then we get back to the main story in the four issues remaining and you can feel Oliver rushing to wrap this series up as best he can. Forget the de-regulation of the physics protection industry set up in the first volume, we find out exactly what’s behind the need for such a thing in the first place. Turns out that the universe is still expanding, but the dark matter used to support it has run out. Now, Adam and his fellow agents are going to have to work with billionaire industrialist Lance Blackwood, who also happens to be former colleague of Adam’s father, in order to create more dark matter and save reality as we know it. There are some interesting ideas here, such as seeing how Adam survives a close encounter with a quantum tornado, and new artist Alberto Ponticelli turns out to be better at the weird stuff than he is with the ordinary human-interaction parts. Yet you can feel the rush the narrative is in to set up this end of the world scenario, and it makes for a less-than-involving read. Oliver does get everything to a point at the end where he can hopefully decompress a little and allow the finale to unfold in a more natural fashion. Overall, not bad, but when it comes to Vertigo series that were indulged to last as long as they did, I’m left wishing that “Hinterkind” had received the indulgence to last for four volumes like “FBP.”
Something to consider: “Batman” by Snyder and Capullo has been one of the best-selling titles in the industry since the start of their run with all forty issues selling over 100K each. Yet Snyder has made more money with his creator-owned Image title “Wytches.” That being the case, it’s not hard to imagine a future where the creator leaves the Big Two behind to focus on titles that he owns and controls with the artists involved. Hey, it’s worked out pretty well for Brian K. Vaughan so far. DC and Marvel will likely continue to serve a valuable role in the industry in the form of getting creators the exposure they need in order to launch their own creator-owned titles. They can change this fate by simply paying their creators more. However, do any of you really see that happening anytime soon?
Ever since we started getting Kon’s manga over here, I’ve been waiting to read the one which would live up to the genius of his films. “Tropic of the Sea” was an early work which showed some promise, but was largely unremarkable. “Opus” felt like it would’ve made for a great movie, but along with “Seraphim” it remains an unfinished work. So I went into “Dream Fossil” with the hope and expectation that this would be the manga which finally offered validation of Kon’s talent on the printed page. That occasionally happened. It has its moments, but this collection of short stories really succeeds in driving home the concept that Kon had the right idea in shifting his ambitions to film.
Between the first volume of this and “The Fade Out,” Ed Brubaker has made his way back into my good graces after his lacklustre end years at Marvel and the never-quite-as-good-as-it-should-have-been “Fatale.” That’s still the case in this second volume of the adventures of spy-on-the-run Velvet Templeton, even though there’s a plot twist towards the end which left me rolling my eyes more than anything else. Backing up a bit, now that Velvet knows her husband wasn’t a traitor the question becomes why was he killed in the first place? Her former bosses are the ones most likely to know, but that requires the spy to head straight back into enemy territory while everyone is on high alert. Good thing she’s still one of the best in the business and still has her bulletproof stealth suit that she took as a parting gift. Of course, even if she gets the answers she’s looking for, will they bring her peace of mind or lead her further down the rabbit hole of international espionage.
Velvet remains a compelling protagonist with this second volume. Even with the world against her, the woman knows how to handle herself and keep at least one step ahead of her former employers. Granted, the rings she runs around them does have these guys coming off as distaff relatives of the “Keystone Kops,” but we do get a couple scenes to show that some of them are starting to question Velvet’s motivations and the logic behind her actions. At this rate maybe one of them will pull his head completely out of his ass in another volume or two. It’s still entertaining to watch Velvet in action -- beautifully illustrated with a real sense of the period from Steve Epting -- and her interior monologue goes a long way towards fleshing her out as someone who is good with guns and causing mayhem. The problem is that after all the effort Brubaker goes through in building up his protagonist, he has her make one obvious mistake and wind up behind the eightball again. Given how well she handles everything up to this point, this development comes off as rather jarring. After all this, it should be clear that Velvet will find a way to get back in the game for volume three and it will make for some entertaining reading. That it needed to happen at all does feel like a miscalculation on Brubaker’s part.
This series has been on the cusp of being really good for a while now. Holding it back has been the supernatural mystery of the revivers and some storytelling that doesn’t surprise as often as it should given the subject matter. With vol. 5, writer Tim Seely makes some big strides towards addressing these issues. By the end of it, I was more involved in the fate of the inhabitants of Wausau, Wisconsin, than I have been at any other point in the series.
Jonathan Hickman’s penchant for planning out his storylines is well known. I mention this now because this is the first time I felt that he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew. This would normally be a really bad thing, except that there are plenty of positives to make this volume another compelling read in his “Avengers” saga. The sins of ambition, if you will.
Hey, so it turns out that I was mistaken and Earl Tubb, protagonist of the previous volume, really was beaten to death in the street by Coach Euless Boss. That does make him seem more threatening, but Jason Aaron wants you to feel something different for this particular bastard here: sympathy. “Gridiron” is all about Euless’ formative years in high school as he wants nothing more than to play football. Problem is that the deck is stacked against him in just about every conceivable way possible. He lacks the physique, has a terrible father, bad guys shoot him in the foot, the coach has it in for him -- it seems like there is no way that Euless’ dream is going to come true with all this working against the boy. However, he has two things working in his favor: The knowledge from old, blind, African-American ballboy Big, and a blistering determination to never give in no matter the cost.
It’s that last part which is the most relevant to the story as the things we see Euless do as a young man really inform the adult he winds up as in the present day. While his intentions are pure at first, the corruption that sets in doesn’t just seem inevitable but natural as well. I also liked seeing how his treatment growing up inspired nothing but contempt for the town he runs like his football team. In his twisted mind, Craw County is responsible for making him the man he is today and he’s not going to let them forget it. Specifically, the moment where he beat a man to death in its streets and nobody raised a finger to stop him or bring the man to justice. It’s compelling work from Aaron, and artist Jason Latour who brings these scenes to life on the page in all their gritty glory. There are also a couple of last-minute surprises in the volume’s final pages which let us know about the latest challenges Coach Boss is going to have to face down. One involves the last words of an old friend, and the other is someone I’m very much hoping to see bust down some conventions in this kind of story. These first two volumes of “Southern Bastards” have been good, but I’m expecting the next one will finally make the series great.
There are two significant character deaths in this volume. One of them involves someone who has been relatively sympathetic throughout most of his tenure in this series. His turn towards hatred in the last few volumes has actually been one of the more believable character developments of this final arc of “Gantz” as his reasons for hating the alien invaders were at least well-founded in his mind. That his final act actually involves saving some of the aliens he has been trying to kill doesn’t come across as glaringly inconsistent is down to the fact that we feel he was a nice kid warped by tragedy and hope for his redemption on some level. (Or at least that’s what I felt.)
The other, well… I really couldn’t give a shit. The character spends most of this volume embracing the nihilistic and selfish worldview he has embraced for most of this series. It appeared for a while that he may have found a reason to care about his fellow humans (maybe just the littlest one fighting on his team), but that turned out to not be the case. In the end, he winds up being a simple punching bag for Kei to show the audience how much better he is than this particular character. As if we didn’t already know. That the character in question winds up spending his final moments crying for his mother isn’t so much sad as it is grossly disappointing. It was obvious that this kid was a horrible bastard who deserved everything that was coming to him. Seeing him cry like a baby in his final moments doesn’t feel satisfying, it feels like a foregone conclusion where our only recourse is to go, “GET ON WITH IT!”
As for our protagonist, mangaka Hiroya Oku spends most of this volume rehashing plot points he had presented to better effect in previous volumes. Kei is reunited (again) with Tae who impresses upon him the idea that not all the aliens are evil and that they shouldn’t all be wiped out due to the actions of the ruling class. Then she dies again -- only it’s a fake-out by the mangaka! The couple then returns to Earth while the endgame begins in earnest. I’ll be sticking around for it, but DAMN! This final arc has jerked me around more than “Future Diary” without the joy of watching a figurative train wreck unfold before my eyes. Only two volumes to go before the series either flubs its landing completely, or sticks it in the most awkward way possible.