Review: Huck, Book 1: All American by Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque

Huck_vol1-1.pngThere is a unique sweetness and optimism to Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque’s Huck so rarely seen in superhero comics these days. It makes for a refreshing change of tone from what we’ve become accustomed to, and besides Albuquerque stunning artwork, is what makes this otherwise fairly old-style superhero caper truly shine.

I say “old-style” because of its simplicity. Nowadays simplicity is frowned upon; character histories have got to be convoluted; plots have got to be expansive, and are generally overwrought. Huck benefits from its streamlined narrative. It’s straightforward and uncomplicated – delightfully so. Huck is an orphan, left at a stranger’s doorstep in small town America when he was a baby. He’s grown up to make a living as a gas station attendant – and has earned a reputation as the town’s do-gooder. Huck’s got superpowers – incredible strength, the ability to leap – not fly, definitely leap – tall buildings in a single bound, and he uses his powers to benefit the town, who in return, keep his abilities secret. So naturally, when a newcomer exposes his secret, the life Huck has constructed for himself falls apart very quickly.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe Huck was written by the writer responsible for the bloody and violent Nemesis and Kick-Ass, which I suppose demonstrates Mark Millar’s range. Five or six years ago, I was turned off by his output – too one-note and violent for my tastes, – but since then, following the publication of Starlight (possibly my favourite sci-fi comic ever) and Jupiter’s Legacy, Millar’s turned himself into one of my must-read writers. Which shows, I suppose, that a reader should never totally dismiss a creator’s output based on what has come before. Millar writes Huck as a dim-witted good guy; who sees the world in black and white, and struggles when the greys expose themselves. Huck’s not bright, but he’s so damn likable; he’s the friend we all need in our lives, not for the scintillating conversation, but because he can distil our troubles into a manageable form.

Albuquerque is the true star here, though. Already a megastar, his work on Huck takes the artist to a whole new level. His style of cartooning is so unique and expressive, able to capture the emotional moments as well as the blockbuster heroic moments. And he’s coloured brilliantly here by Dave McCaig, whose work adds an almost watercolour-like quality to Albuquerque’s pencils. It’s quite possibly the work of their careers, but you wouldn’t put it past them to outdo themselves; perhaps in Huck’s second volume?

A fun, rip-roaring yet poignant superhero tale. There’s not enough heart in superhero comics being published today. Hopefully Huck rubs off on some of the capes and cowls crusading in the pages of Marvel and DC and reminds the Big Two that we want more than fisticuffs and explosions.

ISBN: 9781632157294
ISBN-10: 1632157292
Format: Paperback (275mm x 168mm x 15mm)
Pages: 160
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 26-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Superman, Vol. 1 – Before Truth by Gene Luen Yang & John Romita Jr

Before-Truth-Cover-201x300The Superman titles have undergone a renaissance recently, sparked by the arrival of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder on ACTION COMICS, and followed by Geoff Johns’ and John Romita Jr.’s brief stint on SUPERMAN. Now Gene Luen Yang steps up to the plate – the acclaimed writer of American Born Chinese – with Before Truth, the first volume in his run on SUPERMAN. And with Romita Jr. by his side, he’s redefining Clark Kent for the ‘New 52’ generation. Fans rejoice: we’ve finally got a Superman who’s emblematic of the character we know and love, who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way; but also renewed and rejuvenated under this new stewardship.

Before Truth picks up where Johns’ The Men of Tomorrow arc ended. Superman has discovered a new power – a solar flare that obliterates everything in its radius, but leaves him powerless for up to 24 hours. Why introduce a new power into Superman’s mythology, you might ask? Well, this version of Superman is de-powered; he’s not quite the God-like being readers have become accustomed too, so the solar flare ability is effectively a ‘last resort’ option. When all else fails, when Superman has got to lay it all on the line, he ignites. This allows Yang and Romita Jr. the opportunity to showcase Clark Kent’s misapprehension of the human condition; a few sips of alcohol leave him inebriated, and he’s developed a newfound appreciation for food. These are small touches, but they add layers to a Clark Kent who has been fairly uninteresting since DC relaunched with the New 52.

Before Truth introduces the villain Hordr, who has learned Superman’s secret identity and threatens to expose him to the world unless he does precisely what’s demanded of him. Aided by Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Superman deliberates between his desire to maintain a normal life as Clark Kent and refusal to bow down to the villain’s command. But ultimately, it might be a decision that’s taken out of his hands . . .

Gene Luen Yang and John Romita Jr.’s SUPERMAN is, simply, a rip-roaring superhero tale. They haven’t aspired to redefine Superman’s character or continuity; rather, they’re focused on telling a good story and implores readers to pick up the subsequent volume. There’s no doubt about that. Solid characterisation, rapid pacing, great Romita Jr. art –  it’s all here. A Superman story for readers, old and new, to enjoy.

ISBN: 9781401259815
Format: Hardback
Pages: 224
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 12-Apr-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Batman by Ed Brubaker, Vol. 1 by Ed Brubaker, Scott McDaniel & Karl Story

Batman-Brubaker-cover.jpgEd Brubaker’s BATMAN run in the early 2000’s, alongside Greg Rucka’s stint on DETECTIVE COMICS, rank as my favourite period in Batman comics history. Yes, in my mind, it even eclipses the brilliant work being done by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo right now — and that stuff is great. Some of my adoration is nostalgia, sure — I was fourteen when the issues first landed at my local newsagency — but make no mistake, Brubaker’s BATMAN comics are unmissable. Full of hardboiled narration, the perfect blend of super-heroics and dark, gritty crime, Batman by Ed Brubaker features all the ingredients the award-winning writer has plucked for his legendary Marvel Comics work and his brilliant creator-owned comics.

Batman by Ed Brubaker introduces the killer Zeiss who, with his specially-designed goggles, has the capability of memorising the Caped Crusader’s many fighting styles, thereby giving him the edge in combat.  His arrival in Gotham City ignites a chain of events that weigh heavily on Batman. First, Jeremy Samuels —Bruce Wayne’s chief of security before the death of his family drove him over the edge — is paroled from prison, but quickly finds himself back amongst the criminal element, a pawn in Zeiss’s game, which is itself tied to the Penguin; then Mallory Moxon and her father, Lew — once a Gotham mob boss – return to the city, and quickly find themselves the target of the master-assassin Deadshot.

The trouble with this collection is that – because of the nature of comics – there are a variety of plot holes and sudden divergences in its focus. The Zeiss plot takes a backseat when the company-wide crossover event Our Worlds at Waroccurred, and the collection doesn’t adequately explain when / why Jim Gordon retires from the GCPD (he was shot) or when Sasha (Bruce’s bodyguard) learns his secret identity. This isn’t Brubaker’s fault – at the time, BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS (in fact, the whole line of ‘Bat-Family’ titles) were linked, so the universe was cohesive; but read like this, in standalone form, more than a decade later these holes are gaping. Veteran comics readers will power through undaunted; new readers might be slightly perturbed.

Scott McDaniel’s dynamic artwork is just as memorable as Brubaker’s writing; I can’t think of one without the other. McDaniel is, simply, an eminent storyteller, and excels when gifted whole pages or large panels to demonstrate his style. The combat scenes are spectacularly choreographed, and he’s just as skilled at the quieter moments. Batman in the shadows, crouched above Gotham in the rain, has never looked so menacing.

When I reminisce on my ‘golden years’ of comic book reading, I think of Ed Brubaker’s BATMAN. This collection served as a wonderful trip down memory lane, but besides that, I was thrilled it has stood the test of time.

ISBN: 9781401260651
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 9-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Murder Book by Ed Brisson

Murder Book.jpgMurder Book collects a dozen or so crime comics by Ed Brisson and a coterie of artists. These are lean, dark, twisted tales, which take advantage of the genre’s flexible form, and delve into the many facets of society’s underbelly. They are not necessarily about bad guys; instead, they are about guys who’ve landed themselves in bad situations and are desperately trying to dig their way out.

The crime genre offers a plethora of narrative possibilities, and Brisson takes full advantage, offering stories about police detectives, carjackers, thieves, drug peddlers; you name an archetype, Brisson has it covered. Only they aren’t presented as archetypes. Even in this short-form, he manages to add a layer of humanity and depth to these people. We don’t need to know the full extent of their backstories to feel sympathy for them; even when that sympathy is twinged with disgust at their behaviour.

Artists Declan Shalvey, Michael Walsh, Jonnie Christmas – to name just three of a brilliant bunch – are all in top form, effectively utilising a black-and-white palette (or grey tones) to nail the dark, gritty atmosphere Brisson’s scripts demand. Each artist has a very distinct style, but the collection’s tone feels consistent, perhaps due to the implementation of simple layouts. Don’t expect double-page spreads or splash pages; by design many of these stories feel claustrophobic at times as the stories build tension.

Every story in Murder Book crackles with energy. Brisson and his cohorts have demonstrated an unparalleled ability to draw in the reader and make us feel every punch, every gunshot, every mistake. As far as crime comics go, this is one of the greatest anthologies out there. It’s a real treat.

 

ISBN: 9781616556815
Format: Paperback  (259mm x 169mm x 13mm)
Pages: 184
Imprint: Dark Horse Comics
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Publish Date: 31-Mar-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Injection, Vol. 1 by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey

Injection.jpgThe superstar Moon Knight creative team of Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey reunite for an ambitious, genre-bending Image Comics series.

Years ago, five agents of the British government – each a genius in their specific field – created something called the ‘Injection.’ In doing so, they poisoned the world – reality itself – and are now dealing with the horrific consequences of their experiment. Bizarre, toxic aberrations are forming on our planet; these people are our only hope.

Blending elements of folklore, technology, history and science fiction,Injection is part sci-fi epic, part procedural. In typical fashion, Ellis presents plenty of theory and cool concepts – fantastically depicted by the super-talented Shalvey – but doesn’t offer a full explanation for transpiring events; that will surely come, later. For now, this first volume hooks the reader with stunning art, dangling plot threads – a hint of grander danger to come – and the five protagonist’s unlikely allegiance. As brilliant as they are – super-smart, extraordinarily talented – they aren’t infallible. Each of them possess demons, not all of which are explicated in this volume, but suggests saving the world won’t be run-of-the-mill. Indeed, their damaged psyches might prove their greatest obstacle.

Shalvey’s art deserves superlatives; all of them, in fact. He is unrivalled, stylistically; and partnered with colourist Jordie Bellaire, his illustrations have never been so striking. He is a perfect artist for Ellis; equally capable of keeping readers’ eyes glued to the page during character conversations, as he is blowing minds when he’s able to cut loose and portray the deadly aftereffects of the Injection.

Its first volume suggests The Injection will earn a place in Ellis’ Greatest Hits. There’s a long way to go, of course – lots of loose ends to tie together, characters to develop further. But what a launch!

Review: Superman – The Men of Tomorrow by Geoff Johns & John Romita Jr.

Men of TomorrowJohn Romita Jr. is synonymous with Marvel Comics – his runs on Spider-Man, Iron Man andDaredevil are legendary (and for this reviewer especially, his stint on Peter Parker: Spider-Man, in the nineties, was seminal), so the 2014 announcement that he’d be coming to DC to work on Superman garnered waves of attention. That he’d be united for the first time with DC’s superstar writer (and Chief Creative Officer) Geoff Johns, was icing on the cake.

Up to this point, Superman’s adventures in the ‘New 52’ universe have been a mixed bag. There’s been some great stuff – Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’s initial issues in Action Comics, and latterly the work by Greg Pak (also in Action), and Scott Snyder’s Unchained – but there’ve been troughs, too. Years back, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank combined to create some of the best Superman comics of the past decade – in fact, possibly of all time – so the outlook following the Johns / Romita Jr. announcement looked positive; Superman fans were being rewarded for their patience with a kick-ass creative team. The Men of Tomorrow is the result.

The story revolves around Ulysses; a strange visitor from another dimension, who shares many of Superman’s experiences. Like the Man of Steel, in order to survive impending doom, he was rocketed into the unknown as a baby, to a place where he developed incredible abilities, and matured into adulthood with the belief his home planet had been destroyed; that he too, like Superman, was the last son of a dead world. When a being from Ulysses’s adopted home attacks Metropolis, Ulysses aids Superman in stopping the threat, and the two form a friendship.  Ulysses is stunned his home planet survived, and with Superman’s help, he seems destined to become another of Earth’s mighty protectors. As the story unfolds, Clark Kent is reunited with his old crew at the Daily Planet – Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Perry White – and begins to manifest a new superpower; one he can’t control, and with possibly devastating consequences. Bad timing; because Ulysses’s intentions mightn’t be as pure as they’d seemed…

John Romita Jr.’s art is exemplary, but won’t be to everyone’s tastes. He is a masterful storyteller, but perhaps not an artist you’d select for a pinup. There’s a workmanlike quality to his style that is admirable; his focus is on the story, and ensuring it’s laid out as functionally as possible. Thankfully, Johns gives him plenty of space to dynamically render the blockbuster scenes; our first sighting of Superman is spectacular, as he careens his fist into the giant-sized Titano.

Johns is on point here, too; though his depiction of Superman and his supporting cast is more reminiscent of the pre-New-52 world. Not a bad thing; it’s nice having Clark Kent back as newshound for the Daily Planet, and interfacing with his pals liked he used to. Still, in terms on continuity, The Men of Tomorrow doesn’t quite fit with recently scheduled programming; perhaps that’s why DC Comics chose not to number this volume.

The Men of Tomorrow isn’t quite vintage Superman, but it’s up there with the best of the character’s offerings from the New 52. It’s great seeing Romita Jr. stretch his wings and play with characters, and a world, he’s never touched before. For the art alone, this collection is worthy of a place on your shelf.

Review: Arkham Manor by Gerry Duggan & Shawn Crystal

Ark Manor CoverArkham Asylum has fallen. I don’t know why, exactly – – due to the fact I’m out of the Batman continuity loop, and Gerry Duggan’s wise decision to not bog his narrative down in those ultimately superfluous details – – but its collapse has left Gotham City in desperate need of a home for its mentally unstable criminal population. There are few options available to the authorities; and each idea is swiftly knocked down by the city’s citizens. After all, who wants to live next door to psychopaths like Mister Freeze or the Joker? But there is one place that fits the bill; situated outside Gotham’s city limits, its large, spacious rooms – – with a few adjustments, of course – – would make for the perfect penitentiary.

That place is Wayne Manor.

ARKHAM MANOR was a six-issue limited series published earlier this year from the creative talent of Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal. It couples an innovative plot with stunning artwork; two ingredients that make for a fantastic reading experience. It’s a rare example, too, of a series that earned a longer run than what we’ve got; 6 issues just aren’t enough. Not that Duggan and Crystal don’t successfully tell their story – – they do – – I just wanted more.

As Wayne Manor transitions from homely manor to asylum for the insane, there are growing pains. A killer is on the loose inside the walls, targeting patients; and Arkham isn’t a place Batman can walk around freely and ask questions. So he comes up with a secret identity – – much like he has in the past, with his thug persona Matches Malone – – and plans himself in Arkham Manor as one of the patients. Along the way he has interactions with several villains – – Mister Freeze is used remarkably well as comic relief – – and investigates the murders.

Shawn Crystal’s artwork is superb. Wonderfully dynamic, his style isn’t the type I’d normally associate with Batman, which is part of the reason why it works so well. It’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s nice to see a lither Batman as opposed to the bulkier version we’ve become accustomed to in Greg Capullo’s Batman run. He’s as adept with the comedic beats as he is with the horrific moments, which are graphic, yes, but never gratuitous; it’s a fine line. As for writer Gerry Duggan, I’m not familiar with his work, though I am aware of the acclaim he has received through his work on Deadpool. He keeps his story on point, his narrative taut, and finds humour in a tale other writers would struggle to.

ARKHAM MANOR is part mystery, part horror story, and all great. My biggest disappointment is that I don’t have more to look forward to. Unless…

ISBN: 9781401254582
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 4-Aug-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Ant-Man Vol. 1 – Second-Chance Man by Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas

Ant Man coverI’ve never read an Ant-Man comic, but the impending release of a blockbuster film, plus the creative team collaborating on Marvel’s new series, persuaded me to check out the first volume of the revamped title. I’m so glad I did. Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas have created a funny, thrilling, and heartfelt superhero tale that deserves to stick around for the long haul.

Ant-Man has a convoluted backstory – – then again, name a superhero who doesn’t. Several characters have donned the mantle made famous by the original, Hank Pym; more recently, ex-con Scott Lang has been wearing the suit, and it’s he who stars as the protagonist in this latest incarnation. Nick Spencer does a nice job making all that history palatable for newcomers, never sweeping continuity under the rug, but not getting bogged down in it either. When Second-Chance Man opens, Lang is applying for the role of Stark Industries’ Head of Security, a job he desperately needs to ensure he retains visitation rights with his daughter. His narration is laced with sarcasm and self-deprecation; this is a guy who stumbled into the superhero business, and doesn’t believe he deserves a seat at the same table as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. And given his tendency to give into temptation – – he’s an ex-thief, after all – – he’s probably right.

Spencer litters his scripts with humour, and for the most part the jokes land perfectly. It’s not all light and fluffy, though – – especially when an old foe surfaces and kidnaps Lang’s daughter. Now, I know what you’re thinking: the old villain-kidnapping-heroes-daughter trope. Been there, done that. But Spencer makes it work, due in no small part to artist Ramon Rosanas, whose work reminds me of Chris Samnee, with its clean, slick line-work. Much of the book’s humour relies on visual gags, and Rosanas pulls this off with the required subtlety. He’s equally adept at the big action scenes; one of this volume’s highlight’s is Ant-Man’s battle with the Midasbot – a Nazi-gold spitting killer machine.

Ant-Man works because it humanises its titular character. Scott Lang is an everyman, who has screwed up, and will continue to do so. But deep down, despite everything, he has a good heart, and he wants to do right by his daughter; wants to be the father she deserves. Ant-Man doesn’t possess universe-shattering threats, but it packs a ton of heart, and offers a refreshing change of pace from the other titles on Marvel’s list.

ISBN: 9780785193876
Format: Paperback
Pages: 120
Imprint: Marvel Comics
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Publish Date: 23-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Southern Bastards, Volume 2 – Gridiron by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour

Southern Bastards Vol 2 coverThe first volume of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards (There Was a Man) introduced us to the seedy, corrupted Craw County and its most feared resident, Euless Boss, who quite literally took matters into his own hands when returning resident Earl Tubb started brewing trouble. When Tubb stumbled back into town and witnessed the sheer brutality of Boss’s reign, he tried to take matters into his own hands and deal with the trouble head on. That decision had fatal consequences, and demonstrated the unabashed sadism of the town’s high school football coach. But such savagery isn’t implanted in a man’s psychosis from birth; it needs to be cultivated and fine-tuned; sharpened like a stick, ready to stab. Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron delves into Coach’s Boss past and explores the troubles that played him as a young boy; how a warped love of football turned him into the monster we know he’ll become.

While my interest in football (unless it’s of the round ball variety) is infinitesimal, I can appreciate a man’s love of sport, particularly that of a school senior, who mightn’t have the natural talent to guarantee a college scholarship, but has the guts and determination to overcome that lack of guile. Young Euless Boss is mocked from his very first try-out. Quite simply, he’s not very good, but his body is a weapon, and he is willing and very able to throw it around for the benefit of the team – not that anyone’s thankful for it. Boss has clearly had a tough childhood; a criminal father, no friends, no real aspirations beyond success on the football field. It would appear he’s on the fast-track to nowhere; fate has signed, sealed and delivered his beginning, middle, and end. But Euless Boss doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Losing’s never been an option.

Jason Aaron doesn’t make Boss a sympathetic character – having witnessed his actions in There Was a Man, that would be impossible – but he does mould this beast into something that is at least recognizable; a tangible facsimile of mankind at its worst. Gridiron is comprised of several key character moments, some outrageous but the majority are subtle, and Jason Latour illustrates these with style, utilizing a red colour palette to absolute perfection. His characters are ugly, which is apt for the landscape, and his storytelling ability panel-to-panel is top notch. By design it’s not pretty to look at, but the workmanship is of the highest quality.

Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron maintains the quality of the series’ first volume and adds essential context to its grand antagonist. With it out of the way, Aaron and Latour are free to explore the consequences of Boss’s actions at the end of Volume 1. It’s going to be bloody. It’s going to be great.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781632152695
Format: Paperback (260mm x 171mm x mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 12-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Velvet, Volume 2 – The Secret Lives of Dead Men by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet CoverRocked by revelations about the worst night of her life (see Velvet, Volume 1: Before the Living End), super-spy Velvet Templeton returns to London to unravel the mystery behind the murder of one of ARC-7’s elite operatives. Naturally, things promptly go ballistic.

Thus far we’ve seen Velvet pivot and weave her way out of most confrontations. Before the Living End presented her as an uber-talented, though rusty from years behind a desk, ARC-7 field operative. She has demonstrated her tactical mind, expert hand-to-hand and small-arms combat, and the ability to think quickly on her feet. Like James Bond, when Velvet Templeton is faced with impossible odds, we expect her to escape. When all seems lost, we expect her to find her way, because that’s what the heroes of spy thrillers do.

The Secret Lives of Dead Men is so impressive because it plays with our expectations. As the story opens, Velvet is certain she’ll be able discover who has turned the agency against her. She has a plan, and as she sets about enacting it, readers feel confident in her ability. That is, until things go awry, slowly at first, then with a swiftness that’s impossible to rectify. Velvet’s seamless scheme suddenly reveals itself to be full of holes. Perhaps our hero isn’t quite the superstar we’d been lead to believe; or rather, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency, and Velvet’s assuredness might actually be a weakness.

The Secret Lives of Dead Men throws Velvet’s quest for answers into a tailspin, and Epting takes full advantage of the grandiose action set-pieces sprinkled throughout Brubaker’s script, while also maintaining his impeccable standards in the quieter moments. The plot is convoluted, but not opaque – Brubaker is the master of dangling plot threads while keeping them from knotting, and a sense of urgency is impressively maintained throughout these pages.

Nobody else in comics is capable of turning in a tighter-plotted and faster-paced thriller than Brubaker and Epting. Velvet continues to be a masterclass.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781632152343
Format: Paperback (260mm x 171mm x mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United States