With this volume, mangaka Gamon Sakurai continues his efforts to yank the narrative in the direction he wants it to go. Frankly, I was hoping we were going to get a series about a charismatic psychopath (Sato) who is out to murder those in the government, military, and big business who wanted to exploit his kind and the idiot kid (Kei) who stands against him because of FRIENDSHIP! There’s an outside chance that could still happen, but it looks like we’re getting a story about a sullen, unlikeable kid whose life experience has taught him to look out for number one (Kei) and a psychopath who is advancing his own agenda under the guise of social justice (Sato).
I was hoping that this Peter Milligan-written miniseries about sex, the world of high finance, revenge, and an esoteric sci-fi concept would be one of the projects from the notoriously hit-or-miss writer that actually hit. Instead, “The Names” turned out to be one of his less interesting failures. The story kicks off when Kevin Walker, to all outward eyes a successful broker with a life to be envied, commits suicide by jumping from his high-rise office. Katya, his wife, is stunned by this act and knows that there has to be more going on here. She’s right. Kevin was a member of The Names, a secret conspiracy masterminded by a shadowy cabal of capitalists who manipulate world markets for their own ends and employ ruthless operatives with names like The Surgeon to take care of anyone who gets out of line. While Katya tracks them down with the help of Kevin’s son Philip -- a teenager whose genius at math is equalled only by his horniness -- The Names are dealing with a problem of their own. Specifically, the “Dark Loops:” programs that they’ve created which have gained sentience and are threatening to not only bring the whole conspiracy down, but the world along with it.
If you’re partial to Milligan’s style, then there’s some entertainment to be gleaned from his dialogue (which is arch and absurd in equal measure), oddball concepts like the League of Psychopaths, as well as his general skewering of unrestrained capitalism. You’ll also be more likely to tolerate Philip who seems to exist just to make life more difficult for the entire cast. I do have a hard time imagining that anyone will be satisfied with the outcome of this story which doesn’t so much end as simply come to a halt. Even though this was solicited as a nine-issue miniseries, it reads like an ongoing title that was cut short after nine issues. There’s no real satisfying wrap-up here, particularly in regards to the “Dark Loops” which are never evolve beyond a deus ex machina-esque plot device. At least the art from Leandro Fernandez is a lot of fun to take in. Fernandez has always had a penchant for caricature and here he goes into it full-tilt, which proves to be a good match for the general absurdity of the plot. Even so, this mix of intriguing plot elements never really comes together in a way that fully engages you or allows me to recommend it to anyone beyond Milligan completists.
After much waiting, the Matt Fraction/David Aja run of “Hawkeye” is finally over and collected. I can say that it’s been fun. Not really “BEST COMIC EVAR IN RECENT MARVEL HISTORY!!1!” but definitely one of Fraction’s better efforts at the company and a fantastic showcase for the skills of Aja. That said, the most surprising thing about this volume is how it makes a good showcase for the lesser-known brother of Clint Barton, Barney.
The main series may be over, but here’s one more volume of this (decidedly uneven) spinoff series for the road! Longtime “Fables” artist Mark Buckingham writes the six-issue title story as he picks up on a stray plot thread.
Fred Van Lente makes his debut as the new writer for this series and almost immediately has Conan getting into trouble in the land of Kush. The barbarian, still feeling the loss of his love Belit, gets drunk enough to have his gear stolen by a fence and then thrown into a junk pile teeming with giant carnivorous worms. Naturally, this just makes him mad and is only the beginning of the story. By the end of his adventures in this land Conan will have teamed up with an aged wizard named Agara, taken down a zombie attack, gone to work for the corrupt rulers of Kush, and gone toe-to-toe with a summoned boar-creature. Business as usual for the barbarian as you can see. Van Lente goes through all this rather efficiently and with a few self-aware bits -- the best of which is when Kush’s queen lectures Conan on the finer points of witch hunting -- for levity.
Still, this is all pretty standard issue as far as these stories go, and the writer even makes the questionable story decision to have Conan fight off an uprising led by the oppressed dark-skinned lower class of this society. Thankfully this phase of his career doesn’t last long, but it’s still uncomfortable to read. The most interesting part of the story is how Belit is treated as a literal ghost that is haunting the title character. I like that Van Lente is picking up on the romance that defined Brian Wood’s run, as it makes sense that the character wouldn’t be over it so soon. Van Lente also manages to write her out at the end in a fairly elegant fashion as Conan and his new crew head off to Stygia in search of a treasure horde. That sounds like a recipe for disaster in regards to the characters, as well as the makings of a story worth reading. I wasn’t completely won over by the new writer’s work here -- though artists Brian Ching and Eduardo Francisco turn in gritty work worthy of the title -- yet nothing about it gave me any real reason to stop reading this series. It’s middle-of-the-road “Conan,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad read.
It’s the penultimate volume of this series, and mangaka Hiroya Oku decides to oblige the readers who have been following it for so long with some answers. To his credit, they’re actually fairly interesting ones that explain some of the nonsense that has come before and play against your expectations. Vol. 37 starts off on the alien mothership that has now been commandeered by the Gantz fighters. Now at the mercy of the humans, the aliens wind up getting some frankly abhorrent treatment by their captors. You might have some time to think that Oku is making some kind of allegorical statement about real-life war crimes, but this just turns out to be window dressing before the team led by Kei and Kurono winds up in the Room of Truth (no, really) and get an explanation as to why they’ve been fighting all this time.
As the first epilogue to this volume makes abundantly clear, this is Tony Chu’s FINAL showdown with The Collector. Easily identifiable as the series’ “big bad” from his first appearance way back in vol. 2, this vampiric cibopath is responsible for the single most shocking act in this series -- the death of Tony’s sister Toni -- as well as a lot of gruesome murders, dismemberments, and even one scarring. With that kind of rap sheet, you’d expect his last clash with Tony to be the stuff of legend, right? I’ll admit that what what creators John Layman and Rob Guillory give us is pretty good, it still felt like there was something missing. That’s mainly because in order to defeat The Collector, Tony only has to do ONE THING.
Granted, once this one thing has been revealed you’ll be able to appreciate how well it was set up over the past few volumes. Particularly in the way that it springs from the shocking cliffhanger from vol. 9 and eventually leads to a reconciliation of sorts between Tony and his former partner John Colby. Still, it’s not really presented as that much of a challenge for our protagonist to overcome and basically allows him to steamroller over The Collector and his henchmen in the space of an issue. Layman and Guillory make up for this, however, in the final exchange between Tony and The Collector when the latter tries to leverage his Knowledge of Things to Come over the former. Tony then proceeds to let his nemesis know exactly what he thinks of that. Then the eternal owwies begin.
This may be the most significant part of “Blood Puddin’,” but it’s not all the volume has to offer. There’s the usual brand of craziness the series is known for -- witness the wrath of the Jellassassins as well as Applebee and Cesar’s new cyborg enhancements -- along with a surprising amount of human drama. All of that is centered around Tony not only reconciling with John, but with Olive as well after he finds out what his daughter really thinks about the way he’s been acting through his powers. It also leads him to do something you wouldn’t expect he’d be capable of when Tony comes face-to-face with Savoy again in this volume. Though this may not be a perfect transition to “Chew’s” final act, it shows that the creators have things well in hand to deliver a satisfying wrap-up.
(And did you catch the latest nod to the final issue? Forget the final page of this volume, the fact that Applebee is hating on what looks like a cardboard cut-out of Tony does not bode well for our protagonist.)I
Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s sordid saga of sex, murder, and live TV comes to a surprisingly upbeat end with this volume. Former army vet turned stagehand turned TV star Michael White has been trying to find out who killed his dad, the original “Satellite Sam.” While progress has been made there has also been a lot of drunken stumbling into the same kind of sexual escapades his old man liked to record on film. This time he winds up in the middle of the political/sexual tug-of-war between LeMonde network owner Dr. Joseph Ginsberg and senator Reb Karnes over whether or not the FCC committee run by the latter will open up enough air for the former to take his network coast-to-coast. Going on alongside all of this are Gene Ford’s problems with his girlfriend and the local branch of the KKK as he passes-for-white, living human taint Hamilton Stanhope’s attempts to blackmail the gay writer of “Satellite Sam” Guy Roth for more screen time, and the effort’s of Roth’s beard-of-a-wife Maria to ensure that these efforts come to naught.
I’ve enjoyed this title’s look at the seedier side of the early days of TV more as it has gone on and this volume is no exception. Fraction doesn’t shy away from the behind-the-scenes depravity and backstabbing that was kept under wraps during the era, but he doesn’t let it define the narrative and keeps the focus on the characters and their personal struggles. While I still think that Chaykin’s gritty art is a good complement to all this, my main complaint -- that it can be hard to tell some of his characters apart -- remains true after three volumes. Most surprising about vol. 3 is how it all ends on a relatively positive note. I was expecting a downbeat “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” wrap-up given how none of the cast seemed capable of getting their act together long enough to do the right thing.
However, Fraction throws us a curve at the beginning of the final issue that leads to just about everyone getting more or less what they deserve in the end. It’s also interesting because the ending suggests that things worked out due to the fact that nobody achieved any real personal change. Michael is still following in his father’s footsteps (and still a drunk), Gene is still passing-for-white, and Guy is still publicly in the closet. Maybe a reckoning will be coming if Fraction and Chaykin get around to delivering the next series, which is set up here as the principal cast sets up shop in Hollywood. After what the creators delivered here, I’d certainly be up for reading about that.
I think I’m about done with Rick Remender.
His tendency for grinding down characters was what got me to stop reading “Fear Agent” a few years back, and it’s become more prevalent in his recent work from Marvel. Granted, the writer has written some great stories for that company, and the first volume of this series looked like it was going to break that trend in that building up/redeeming that scumbag Kadir. Two volumes since and that thread appears to have fallen by the wayside if that was even the direction Remender was going to go with it at all. With the surprise return of series protagonist Grant McKay at the end of the previous volume, “Black Science” is more or less back to the status quo it established at the beginning as the cast finds themselves in a world where the Roman Empire survived long enough to get some cool sci-fi toys. To what should be no one’s great surprise, this dimension’s Anarchist League of Scientists has royally screwed it by unleashing a deadly plague. Rather than simply wait around for the Pillar to ‘port everyone out, Grant decides that he’s tired of all the chaos being left in their wake and makes a vow to leave each world they come to better off than when they arrived -- starting with this one.
So the series is fully embracing its similarities to the 90’s series “Sliders, but only in the most downbeat way possible. Not only is Grant set upon from all sides by this world’s armed forces as he tries to eradicate the plague, but all sorts of personal drama erupts between the members of the cast who are left behind. People die as a result of this, all because they try to do the right thing. Kadir does too and he gets stabbed through the heart for his trouble. By the end of the volume we’re left with a significantly reduced cast that has bred even more betrayal, distrust, and sadness between it. If that wasn’t enough, Remender throws in a final twist which reveals that Grant’s efforts were all for nothing! It comes off about as well as a kick in the crotch.
The worst part about all this is that it’s executed extremely well. Remender kicks things off at a fast pace from the beginning and keeps the momentum going throughout. Matteo Scalera’s art is incredibly energetic and does great justice to the script with his action scenes and designs for this world. (Even if Dean White’s colors are missed in this volume.) It’s quality work from both creators, all done in the service of a story that does nothing but grind its characters down and set them up so that all of their actions end in failure. This may be someone’s idea of a good time, but not mine. Maybe I’d be more into this series if it felt like this was part of its plan, or if it started to embrace the chaos and despair it was fostering. I can only hope that changes for the next volume.