We’ve reached the end of the summer convention season and Dark Horse finally (FINALLY!) announced a new manga license. Well, it’s not a manga, actually. You could probably call it manga-adjacent, really, given that its subject is best known as an illustrator/character designer. The license in question is Yoshitaka Amano: Beyond the Fantasy -- An Illustrated Biography, an English-language version of the original French edition published back in 2015. “Beyond the Fantasy” will come in two editions, with the standard one being a 320-page hardcover that will retail for $50. If you’re willing to shell out $100 for the limited edition, then in addition to the hardcover you’ll get a copy of Amano’s sketchbook from his Paris trip, a signed card from the artist, two lithographs of his work from “Vampire Hunter D” and “Final Fantasy VI,” and a blu-ray disc featuring scenes from his trip, an interview between the artist and the publisher of the French edition, and a painting session at his studio. All-in-all it sounds pretty impressive. Even if it is something manga-adjacent rather than an actual new manga license.
For a series that started off so very well attuned to my (trashier) sensibilities, “Murcielago” has been doing a lot to get me to not like it. After lesbian mass-murderer protagonist Kuroko Koumori enthusiastically came on to an underage girl and the rock-stupid antics of Hinako in the last volume, the series plows into some new aggravating territory here. It turns out that there’s not one, but two serial killers that need to be tracked down in this arc and one of them isn’t above the age of consent. (No, the cover isn’t a hint in that regard. Why would you even ask such a thing…) What’s more, one of them has a penchant for brutally murdering good dads and we find out this person is very successful at this. That’s just depressing. The one interesting thing to emerge from this amusement park-based section of the story is in regards to Hinako. It turns out that there may have been a very good reason she was placed in Kuroko’s care as she’s very, VERY focused on payback for anyone who injures her physically.
The other thing which this volume has against it is the developing conspiracy which suggests that someone may be behind all of the killers Kuroko and company have faced up to this point. Moreover, said conspiracy may be the reason she was recruited by the police in the first place. This has the potential to become interesting, but currently it all feels like a mess. A tangled mass of unknown players, mysterious motives, and wild supposition. This is the bad kind of “conspiracy” plotting that got me to stop watching “The X-Files” in its later years.
On the plus side, the action is still top-notch as Kuroko’s showdown with the other serial killer in this volume is a great example of what this series does well. That the volume also ends with her trying to infiltrate a cult filled with beautiful girls also has potential as well. Still, the quality of “Murcielago” is on a gentle downward trend at this point and it needs to focus on delivering stylish and sexy action (with characters who aren’t minors) in order to get back on track.
This series gets further back on track with its fourth volume (never mind the renaming/renumbering) as Olive Silverlock and her friends dive deeper into the mysteries surrounding the Academy. Things start off fine with Olive and her friends investigating a cult of witches that has sprung up on campus and the introduction of her new roommate, bad seed Amy. Then the narrative quickly turns back to the uber-plot of the series as mean girl Pomeline takes a stolen map, that could save gadget-man Colton from being expelled, to try and find the Lost Book of Old Gotham. While this leaves the group divided, they’re all going to have to come back together again when Olive’s family history turns out to be very relevant and lethal to everyone’s present.
“Welcome Back” does a better job of delivering a captivating teen-centric supernatural adventure better than any volume has since the first. Not only is the overall mystery laid out and unraveled very well, writer Brenden Fletcher (along with co-plotters Becky Cloonan and Karl Kerschl) delivers some quality character drama as well. Not-quite-new penciller Adam Archer also gives us an emotive teen cast along with appropriately mysterious and even over-the-top settings. My main gripe with the volume as I was reading it was that Amy was made out to be the absolute worst for no real reason at all. Her presence threatened to poison my feelings for the overall story… until we find out that Amy has a lot in common with one of Brad Pitt’s signature roles (Of course I’m talking about the detective from “Se7en” -- NO, THIS IS NOT A LIE. WHY WOULD YOU ASK SUCH A THING?)
The bottom line at this point is that unless you just don’t like stories where kids tackle supernatural threats that are out of their depth this is a series worth reading. If you were thrown off by the second volume’s dip in quality then let me tell you that it’s all better now. So get on board before “Gotham Academy” wraps up in the next volume.
I’ve said before that there are two sides to writer Charles Soule. The one most commonly on display is the one with his ruthless competence that you see in the majority of his superhero work. His writing on those titles can be involving and even quite enjoyable, but genuine surprises and cleverness are usually few and far between. The other side is the freewheeling one where he likes to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, as seen in his creator-owned space opera/political drama “Letter 44.” I wasn’t sure what side we were going to get with “Curse Words,” though, the presence of “God Hates Astronauts” creator Ryan Browne as the artist indicated the latter. In a shocking twist (that probably won’t surprise you) we get “ruthlessly competent” Soule here with some occasional bits of craziness to spice things up.
The big news for this series in the post-”Clone Conspiracy” world is that Stuart Immonen is now its regular artist and --
OH DEAR GOD WHAT DID THEY DO TO HIS ART!?!?!?
If you’ve ever wondered how important good coloring is to art these days, you’re going to want to check out this volume. Immonen’s linework is colored in a style best described as “low-light murk” by Marte Gracia with Andres Mossa pitching in for the final issue. (Both are credited as “inkers” in this volume but that appears to be a misprint as a quick internet search reveals otherwise.) Their coloring makes it incredibly hard to appreciate the art here as it mutes a lot of the detail and energy usually present in Immonen’s work. Would it have been too much trouble to get someone like Dave McCaig or Justin Ponsor -- colorists who have both worked with Immonen to great effect in the past -- on this arc? At least secure one of them -- or another talented colorist like Dave Stewart or Jordie Bellaire -- to color this series going forward.
As for the actual story in this volume, it’s pretty solid. After getting a lead on Norman Osborn’s whereabouts Spider-Man teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to hunt him down. The chase leads all over the globe (hence the pun-tastic title of this arc, “The Osborn Identity”) and has Spider-Man burning a couple bridges and making a questionable team-up or two in order to bring down his archenemy. There aren’t a lot of surprises here, but writer Dan Slott keeps the pace entertainingly frantic throughout the story and keeps the Osborn/Parker rivalry fresh as the two keep finding new ways to get under each others’ skin. It’s also worth noting that this arc shows Slott to be working towards putting all of his toys back in the box with regards to Parker Industries. “The Adventures of Peter Parker: Worldwide Superhero CEO” have been fun, but we all knew it wasn’t going to last. Parker is just too nice and self-sacrificing a guy to last long as head of a major corporation. That, and if Slott didn’t do it himself then some other writer (likely rumored new writer Nick Spencer) would’ve done it instead.
Vol. 1 left off with an effective cliffhanger that had another Outsider grabbing little girl Shiva’s face as her guardian Outsider, Teacher, walked in. What follows is unusual for the series so far in that it’s a fight scene and a surprisingly violent one at that, delivering blood and dismemberment at one point. It’s also all the more suspenseful because of the awkwardness the Outsider and Teacher display in their fighting technique. Yet a cooler head, Shiva’s, eventually prevails and this eventually leads to a walk through the forest where other Outsiders are encountered and Teacher dives into a lake to meet their Mother. Meanwhile, back on the Inside, the humans make their move to capture Shiva in order to lift the curse that plagues them.
If you were hoping that “The Girl From the Other Side” would become less inscrutable with its second volume, then I’m going to have to disappoint you here. I was hoping that Teacher’s encounter with these other Outsiders and their Mother would provide some explanation as to their nature, but I was left with only more questions. It turns out that Teacher is… different from other Outsiders and may be in some way responsible for the curse they carry? Mangaka Nagabe’s efforts to create an air of mystery in regards to the Outsiders feels needlessly obfuscative at this point.
What keeps me reading in spite of this is the series’ impeccable sense of style. “Gritty Storybook” may not be the best way to describe its look, but it trades fully in the darkness inherent in many fairy tales without ever fully tipping over into outright nightmare. Take a look at the fantastic cover to this volume to see what I mean. Even though Teacher wants to do right by Shiva, his actions don’t always bear that out. So the sinister feeling you get from seeing that cover is very warranted. Still, I’d be willing to bet that living in the woods with Teacher represents a far better fate for the little girl compared to what her fellow humans have in mind for her.
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. Yet the constant flow of new Image collections into my library continues unabated. Sometimes, however, there’s not much more to say about them than “title is still good,” “title is still average,” or “Rick Remender is back to his old tricks again.” There’s also the rare title where if I were to really sit down and write out a full review of it, I’d be stuck at my computer for the rest of the week as I dug into it. So with these thoughts in mind here’s what I thought about the latest volumes of Monstress, The Wicked + The Divine, Descender, Black Science, and Black Road.
I could only fault the first volume of “Monstress” for its ambition in trying to create a fully-realized fantasy world and not quite getting there. “Monstress vol. 2: The Blood” doesn’t have the same issue as writer Marjorie Liu digs deeper and comes up a world and cast that feel significantly more fleshed-out by its end. This time out Maika Halfwolf, little wolf-girl Kippa, and Master Ren are following the trail of Maika’s mother, Moriko, across the sea in a quest that involves demi-human Arcanic pirates, a skeletal ferryman, a city that lies in the corpse of a dead god, and a powerful fox Arcanic who may have answers for them all. Vol. 2 is a very dense read packed with information that will a lot longer to get through than most comics -- and I mean that in a good way thanks to Liu’s writing. It also remains one of the most gorgeous books being published today thanks to the art of Sana Takeda who brings this world to vivid, fearsome, awe-inspiring life.
Very pretty in its own way, thanks to Jamie McKelvie’s always-energetic and expressive art, is “The Wicked + The Divine vol 5: Imperial Phase Part 1” which picks up after the gods have killed their manipulative handler Ananke. With her clearly and undoubtedly evil -- she was going to sacrifice the youngest of them for unspecified reasons -- out of the way, everyone’s free to do what they want, right? Well it turns out that Ananke was doing all of this to fight back a powerful destructive force known as The Great Darkness and now our protagonists are without a clue as they try to take it on themselves.
Seeing these tragically flawed characters grope around for a clue, all while drinking, dancing, screwing, and murdering is as much fun as you’d imagine coming from Kieron Gillen. We also get some surprising information regarding Odin in this volume which turns him into a much more complex antagonist than he’s come off as in the previous volumes. Odin’s interview is also the standout of the magazine issue, in terms of character development and foreshadowing, a stunt which never quite comes off as clever as it thinks it is.
After the five stand-alone flashback stories that made up vol. 3 managed to mostly kill what little momentum “Descender” had built up to this point, I was hoping to see vol. 4 get this series back on track. “Descender vol. 4: Orbital Mechanics” does manage that, yet it also shows that “Descender” on the right track is still pretty generic and straightforward science fiction. Even as the series sets up the big “Rise of the Robots” arc for the next volume by killing off a main character (but we’ll see if that sticks…), teasing a long-expected reunion, and promising a huge battle between the Federation and the Hardwire, I find it hard to really get invested in any of it. Maybe it’s because the characters have yet to break out of their familiar archetypes and stop spouting their familiar arguments. Also, after four volumes I feel confident in saying that I honestly prefer artist Dustin Nguyen’s traditional pencil work in “Wildcats 3.0” and “Too Many ‘Batman’ Titles To Count” to the painted style he’s been utilizing here.
There are two sides to “Black Science.” One involves everything going wrong for our characters who wind up making the worst choices along the way (seen in vols. 1-3 and the back half of vol. 5). The other has its characters actually learning from their experiences and making a better world for themselves and those around them (vol. 4 and the front half of vol. 5). I prefer the latter to the former, but writer Rick Remender doubles down on the latter in two separate storylines in “Black Science vol. 6: Forbidden Realms and Hidden Truths.”
The first involves Pia McKay finding out that the dimension-hopping, body-snatching Zirites have infested her world and not even a couple of happy reunions will be able to stop it. As for the other, series protagonist Grant McKay has to take on the Zirites himself minus his most powerful weapon -- his intellect. We effectively wind up with two downer cliffhanger endings in one volume as a result. This isn’t “Black Science’s” finest hour by a long shot, though I’m hoping Remender has taken these storylines as far into “depressing” territory as he can and we’ll actually get some uplift in vol. 7.
Sales for “Black Road” indicate that the two volumes we have now are likely going to be all we’re going to get regarding the adventures of pagan mercenary Magnus the Black. As a ten-issue victory lap following on from writer Brian Wood’s “Northlanders” it proves to be pretty satisfying in the end. “Black Road vol. 2: A Pagan Death” has Magnus and his angry comrade Kitta up against a Christian outpost run by an exiled bishop who claims to have a holy artifact that renders him invincible in battle. I’ll admit that there’s fun in seeing Magnus prove this man of the cloth wrong, but the real interesting bits are the questions this book asks about what it means to be a real Christian. Wood lays out his thinking in this volume and it’s actually pretty reasonable and not the anti-religion screed some may have expected. That was surprising and welcome, which along with the storytelling and evocative art from Garry Brown, makes me a little sad we probably won’t be seeing more of Magnus’ adventures in the future.
After saying that you should buy this collection over Becky Cloonan’s latest volume of “The Punisher” yesterday, I figured an explanation as to why was in order. “By Chance or Providence” collects the creator’s three self-published one-shots along with a heaping collection of sketches. Though they all share the same feudal, nordic setting and feature some kind of supernatural aspect to them, these stories are only linked by the tragedy that love -- familial or romantic -- brings to its protagonists. That, and the fact that they’re all quite good.
This volume collects the final pieces of sequential art that Steve Dillon did in his legendary career. I say “final pieces” and not “full issue” because Dillon was only able to complete a few pages in the beginning, middle, and end of the first issue of this collection. The rest are filled out by the artist who does the lion’s share of the work in this volume, Matt Horak. Completing an issue of comics started by Dillon isn’t a task I think any artist would envy, but to my surprise Horak actually does a capable job. His style’s fairly comparable to Dillon’s with its emphasis on clean linework and expressive figures. Horak also places a greater emphasis on detail in his characters and backgrounds, which is always nice to see. There’s also an issue here from Laura Braga which isn’t her best work, but understandably so when you realize that she had to pull it together on short notice after Dillon’s passing. That said, Horak’s work is the most pleasant surprise in this volume and I look forward to seeing what else he has to offer in future comics work.
Now, Horak is sticking around on “The Punisher” for the time being, but I don’t think I’ll be following this title any further. In spite of the solid art this series is likely to have, it doesn’t look like the stories will be getting any more interesting if this volume is any indication. Writer Becky Cloonan is a very talented artist and has written solid stuff elsewhere, but the story in the first volume was incredibly generic and it doesn’t get any better here. I’ll admit that it’s always at least a little fun to see Frank Castle deal out violent death to those who deserve it, and Face’s drug-fueled escalation of craziness is a decent origin for a “Punisher” villain. Still, the story is ultimately about Frank taking down some mercenaries with a drug that is supposed to turn them into super-soldiers. What it really does is turn them into cannon fodder. Frank’s final showdown with their leader Olaf is only interesting because of its iceberg, as opposed to seeing the enmity the two are supposed to possess towards each other be resolved through violence.
If you’ve never read a “Punisher” story in the last decade then I can see how this exercise in rehashing the character’s tropes could be entertaining. Cloonan has done better than this and unless you’re as big a fan of Dillon as I am, you’d be better off checking out her anthology “By Chance or Providence” from Image (even though it has nothing to do with “The Punisher” at all).