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Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/05/23

Comic Books

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/05/23

New comics reviews from Image Comics, Dark Horse, DC Comics, and more!

Welcome to another edition of Last Call Comics. Here, as we continually bolster AIPT’s weekly comics coverage, we catch any titles that might’ve fallen through the cracks. Or, those books that we might not cover but still deserve a little spotlight. Either way, it’s a chance to explore more comics, generate some novel insights, and maybe add to everyone’s to-be-read pile.

Once more, happy New Comic Book Day to everyone.

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Fence: Redemption #2

Comics

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

I was pleasantly surprised by Fence: Redemption #1. As my first foray into this beloved franchise, I thought it managed to cater to its core storytelling (about the somewhat sordid personal lives of a young fencing team) while inviting folks outside its tween/teenage target audience to enjoy a thoughtful narrative that echoes our own experiences and uncertainty of that age. (It’s a really great story that makes me so, so glad I’ll never again be a teen.)

Yet despite that, I still experienced some minor hesitation coming into issue #2 — this could have been, after all, been a fluke, or a shock to the system of someone brand-new to this universe. As it turns out, I’ve found that my adoration continues to grow.

That comes after I see more of the gap between this story (and the tradition and style it represents) and my own comics-centric experiences. There were so many characters involved, and various romantic twists and turns, that I realized even more that this is a very specific comics tradition to get into. Yet rather than make me turn me away, writer C.S. Pacat has a way of fostering such charming characters that I put in the “work” to close the gap myself. I made that somewhat concerted effort to deny what I know about comics and try to embrace the way interpersonal relationships exist here and the way that influences and facilitates the larger plot.

It’s not exactly, say, learning to lift weights underwater, but this title’s core strength is how it blurs character development and plot, and how removed that often is from the work of other American comics or non-manga/manga-adjacent titles. So much of that “success,” then, comes as Pacat further marries the romance and fencing messages and analogies; issue #2 really highlighted how inventive and novel that interplay is, and how natural it feels in fostering context when done with such ease and charm. Even as I felt my own inexperience, this “marriage” connected me back to the story and its own origins/tradition.

If there’s one area where my disconnect felt a little too distracting, it’s the art. Issue #1 definitely had more visual sizzle; the explanatory bit about fencing, for instance, did a lot of work in bringing us into this world. There’s some cool moments in issue #1 delivered by Johanna the Mad and Joana Lafuente — that “flicks scored” gag/gimmick is true genius and why this series feels so real and alive — but I think things settled into more “pedestrian” moments. (Though Lafuente’s colors remain big and bold, and really play up that youthful exuberance with real prowess.) And, sure, maybe that’s the way things go — this is, after all, a truly and deeply human story, and big things happen in the quietest of interactions (like the ending convo). But it just means I’m going to need more time to adjust to the way Redemption and similar tales operate.

And adjust I hope I will, because what started as a bit of a gag for me has become a much-needed lesson in these kinds of titles and the real power and appeal of stories tailored for all ages. It won’t take too much time given this book’s compelling characters, interest in visual and storytelling inventiveness (i.e., those analogies/metaphors), and overt playfulness. I’m totally happy to go a few more rounds once issue #2 busted out some more technical displays.

Final Thought: You can’t duel your way out of loving this little tale.

Score: 7/10

Weird Work #1

Comics

Courtesy of Image Comics.

I’ve spent a few different reviews talking about the marriage between the visual and narrative elements of any story. It seems obvious given the nature of comics — visuals are the world while the narrative is often the “skeleton” — and yet that’s not always the case. We sometimes get issues where the narrative seems to be doing one thing and the art’s on its own path entirely, and that creates a gap where readers’ attention inevitably falls (not unlike this here cat).

Weird Work certainly has those same kinds of issues, but it all somehow works out in the end.

The core of this book is the work of Shaky Kane, who applies his hugely-stylized, eternally bizzare techniques to create an alien world like we’ve rarely seen. Sure, it may pick up on tidbits we’ve seen before — the refurbishing of modern architecture a la Futurama, and the sheer vividness and complexity of The Fifth Element — but Kane’s style and approach is all his own. It’s enough of a spectacle that you can enjoy this book as a kind of exercise in how expertly Kane can develop this strange cast, and there’s plenty of flaming lounge singers and stoic blue alien types that the world is fully and vividly alive across nearly every moment. And yet it’s never just a novelty — even if it is — and Kane’s forged a world where we’re the guests in something with heaps of history and layers abounding. It’s kooky sci-fi with a heft and sturdiness, and that makes all the gimmicks and silliness feel truly real.

Providing the “skeleton” to all of this is writer Jordan Thomas, whom you should know from his excellent work with Frank At Home On The Farm. That book — a cerebral horror story about a WWI vet coming home — perfectly exemplified how you tell nuanced stories about the unblinking horrors of the world. And, maybe to a small extent, Thomas is bringing some of that here — Detective Ovra Sawce is a solid entry into this world, and he’s got the heartache and wit to connect us silly humans to this deeply alien world. It should be a joy to see this complex, deeply broken man traverse a case involving his old partner, with heaps of opportunity to center the drama and intrigue on a well-developed lead.

At the same time, though, the story’s structure — basically a noiry/pulp-y murder mystery — feels a little old hat, even amid this rich and strange setting. I’m worried that, even with a great “hero” in Sawce, I’ll want to spend more time in this weird world than working through another slow-burning mystery. There’s some bits that add to the narrative structure — an uncertain new partner, and stuff in Sawce’s own personal life — that could add some zest to this basic detective story. Yet that mostly remains to be seen, and the larger world is very much alive right now.

Weird Work pretty much feels like the story and then the world, and that’s still honestly enough to keep me going at this point. Could things coalesce more across the rest of the story? Sure. Should they even? Like, is this “separation” of sorts the thing that empowers the alien world and the dependable narrative alike? We’ll leave it to Sawce to sort out the clues, but I’m definitely along for more sightseeing across this gorgeous little galaxy.

Final Thought: Like Aliens, if the Chestbursters were a strange and beautiful-looking human drama.

Score: 8.5/10

Swan Songs #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/05/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Writer W. Maxwell Prince has made a career of one-offs. Be it Haha or Ice Cream Man, Prince’s skills and tendencies often work best in singular volleys to the readers’ cerebellum. So it’s no surprise, then, that Image Comics would give him another such series, Swan Songs, this time focused on “the way things end.”

What better way to actually start than by blowing up the whole world, with a tale of a dying America facing imminent destruction at the hands of an exploding nuclear arsenal? Plus, what better partner for Prince than Martin Simmonds, who has expertly captured the darkest bits of humanity within titles like The Department of Truth?

It becomes fairly clear early on in this issue that Prince recognizes the role of an effective writer: by narrowing things down into the poignant tale of a mother and son, he gives us something to latch onto as everything explodes (figuratively but sometimes literally) all around us. Prince’s approach gives us a solid hero, and we feel for him endlessly in his emotional labor in a world literally ripping itself apart in ways that expertly reflect the boy’s own process of grieving and having to re-contextualize life. And Prince never ignores the world around him, and embraces both the fear (there’s bizarre enemies galore) and some of the latent humor of the apocalypse (like busted elevator signs). In that sense, the story is deeply human and hugely intimate because it lives in the world and still keeps things approachable. Things may be turned up a few degrees, but at its core this is a story about relationships and how they push us across the world.

To a huge extent, some of that could only be because of Simmonds’ work/visuals. Anyone who’s seen his efforts knows how vividly he captures people — there’s a mix of chaos and yet an earnest focus that makes people seem so much more robust. Pair that with a dying world — dirty and broken and yet nonetheless familiar and real — and things align in such a way that this is no mere thought exercise but our own world pushed across its own timeline to an inevitable swan song itself. But I also think that Simmonds’ art accomplishes things independent of the narrative — the line work and the color in certain parts, mixed with subtle elements of horror, manage to shift our perception in just such a way that everything’s still real but also even more fantastical in its pain and depravity. It’s a powerful example of art working in service of the story and still existing in a way that it encourages new ideas and maybe even a bit of “wandering” for truly curious readers.

Together, Prince and Simmonds have told that most rare of things in comics: a non-serialized tale that satisfies the reader. Do I wish I had more time with our young hero, to watch him move through the world or even hold his dear mother? Sure, and this could’ve easily been stretched out into a proper miniseries that would’ve been even more robust and effective. But that’s not the point, and by deliberately denying us, the duo make our connections and interest feel all the more real. Because it too will end, and we’ll just be left waiting blubbering the rubble.

Final Thought: Endings suck, but g-d can they also be life-affirming.

Score: 9/10

Hairball #4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/05/23

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

As I tried to make clear in my last review, Hairball is a story of change. Issue #1 made me feel fear deep in my bones; #2 pivoted into something more exciting like a proper action-horror flick; and #3 pivoted once more into some thoughtful supernatural territory. It’s always about unpeeling the layers and fostering tension the whole time.

So, then, where does that leave us with issue #4? Well, the grand finale had the biggest transformation of all, and it affected the series for better and worse.

In terms of actual plot, Anna caught up with the Bestie somewhere in Europe, where the hell-cat herself was living with a new owner. Cue yet another subplot, one extended (and perhaps enhanced, depending on your perception) by the issue’s opening “history” of cats as these deity figures. I can’t go too deep into what actually happens — it’s certainly one heck of a twist in a way — but suffice to say it leaves the Bestie-Anna dynamic in a place that I truly hadn’t expected. Surely you can guess what that might be, and even if not, it’s a place that is both a little confounding if not interesting. Do I think it’s a smart creative choice? Maybe, even if I just think it was done to setup spin-off books and/or sequels (which leaves me feeling a tad jaded). Is it mostly satisfying? Sure, even as I think it strips some intrigue and authority out of the Anna character and feels a little like some cheesy ’80s horror flick. I certainly wanted a different kind of ending, but we got this one and there’s no denying it sparked a visceral enough reaction in this writer.

Before wrapping things up, though, I need to talk about the work of Tyler and Hilary Jenkins. Because while the story shifted so often, their work remained a much-needed constant. Tyler Jenkins’ art, especially, found that perfect place between dark horror (with a real ’70s sheen) and some sense of childlike playfulness, which made everything feel both raw and real and altogether abstract. His work in #4 wasn’t perhaps any more compelling or effective, but several instances — the aforementioned history bit, and some stuff with Anna and the new owner and how granular it played out — did lay the groundwork for the narrative’s shift. Hilary Jenkins’ colors, meanwhile, added to everything with subtlety and grace, and that historical segment, especially, made me think I was reading a history text (in the best possible way). Her efforts were often in service of the art, but several moments, especially in #4, added a new spin to certain parts (especially when things got extra bloody or horror-centric).

So, after this ping pong storytelling exercise, did I walk away satisfied? Sure, Hairball is a compelling exercise in horror, and it knew where it was headed even as it left fans to do a chunk of the leg work. I think if it proves nothing else, it’s that writer Matt Kindt is a very specific creator, and he knows what he wants to deliver and does it in a way that exudes purpose and confidence. Whether that’s good or not (it often is, very much so) is beyond the point. It’s that we trust him and his collaborators to tell a story, and Hairball is a story that reveals itself fully by the end. Some of us will love it, and others may be slightly overwhelmed by the journey (or, in my case, a bit of both). But when it’s over, you’ll know it left its mark.

Final Thought: You’re the sofa, and this story is the cute, slightly angry Calico cat.

Score: 8/10

Knight Terrors: Black Adam #1

DC Preview: Knight Terrors: Black Adam #1

Courtesy of DC Comics.

You’re going to be seeing a lot of Knight Terrors reviews over the next couple of months. Heck, this first week alone has six tie-ins accompanying Knight Terrors: First Blood #1, and that’s only the very tip of the horror spear.

Some of you may feel the fatigue right away; others might feel drunk on the sheer supernatural hijinks, which I think has always been a strength of DC in general (see Justice League: Dark, or horror-adjacent runs like the current Detective Comics). If you read this week’s other reviews from my colleagues, you may find some entertaining titles. (I liked Batman’s issue, and Ravager has some clear potential.)

But I want to be the first person to tell you an essential truth of these mega-events: there’s often at least some dead weight. And all of that was my long and drawn out way to say that Knight Terrors: Black Adam #1 is our first bit of just such disappointment.

Because writer-artist Jeremy Haun clearly came to this book with some solid visuals. Black Adam has a clean, slick look — reflective of his old design while also referencing some recent happenings and a general sense of relevance. That’s in addition to the rest of the world, where Haun expertly drops this distinctly superhero icon into this unsettlingly dark and foreboding world of horror, where you can practically taste fog of tension in the air. (Not to mention the creature designs, which feel like a body horror take on Pan’s Labyrinth.) Even the lighting crackling off Adam’s body feels alive, and a testament to the issue’s true strengths.

And then that’s mostly it, as the issue pulls a confusing Seinfeld and it’s really hard to discern what’s happening beyond Busy Nothingness. There’s a cat involved (of course there is), and something about Adam transforming into Teth-Adam and a connection back to his own tragic origins story. Sure, maybe I could do a little detective work, but as it stands: 1) the story’s not compelling enough to engage like that and 2) there doesn’t seem to be any stakes and/or a sense that we’re losing (or even gaining) a damn thing. It’s torture for the sake of torture, and without some clarity or a more deliberate approach, it makes me default into thinking this is one nightmare that deserves to happen. (Mostly given Adam’s sordid history.) The only saving grace comes with a surprise character reveal at the very end, and even then it generates the kind of cheap heat that doesn’t so much address the story’s issues but instead bury them under razzle dazzle.

It’s proof that this issue has some real problems. Do I think any of that could be addressed? Maybe; it wouldn’t take much more than some basic exposition to right this story into the realm of entertaining if not outright engaging. Will I read on to see if that’s the case? Sure, because I’m obsessive and need to see all of this event. That right there is mostly the point: enough folks will pick this issue up (and the others) if only because the real nightmare simply isn’t knowing everything that happens.

Final Thought: Is someone still a hero when their suffering is either too deserved and/or unappealing?

Score: 5/10

I Hate This Place #10

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 07/05/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

If this weekly columnhas any merit, it’s to touch on those books that, for whatever reason, get needlessly pushed to the side. I Hate This Place is certainly one of those such titles (not nearly enough buzz and yet some fairly primo Eisner nominations).

And, to an extent, I can understand that — the book seemed to be another fairly direct supernatural romance. But writer Kyle Starks and company worked from page one to set it apart with some truly marvelous results.

It started with our heroes, Trudy and Gabby, who have an ease and connection like few others, and their love affair was as essential to the story’s momentum as it was just generally life-affirming. With the central plot in place, Starks set about transforming this tale: from a haunted farm we quickly get pushed into this massive conspiracy about aliens and time travel, and while I won’t spoil the proper scope of it all, that choice made this story so much more complex and thrilling. It created this massive and robust universe — with the Trudy-Gabby relationship at its core — and thus everything felt grander and with far more stakes involved. It wasn’t about denying other things — like Trudy’s compelling back-and-forth with her father, which is also essential for the plot, or anyone else’s lives and final fate within this tale. Rather, that richly human nougat gave us the chance to push things into some wild directions.

Still, I don’t think Starks’ narrative could’ve have made its eventual super-pivot without the art of Artyom Topilin and Lee Loughridge. Topilin’s got a very distinct style, one that feels really suited to the book’s many styles (big, brash horror; indie love story; dystopian sci-fi epic; etc.). It’s focused and frenetic at the same time, and that really lends some texture and power given the prevailing moment on the page. It’s a style enhanced greatly by Loughridge’s colors — they may offer a sense of sheen (and, in the case of the horror bits, a lot of the oomph) but it does so while respecting the multifaceted feel and offering it more cohesion as the story dips and weaves between genres, sentiments, etc. There were times when all I cared about was a moment between Trudy and Gabby, and the art managed some hue or novel instance to ground me back into the wonderful patchwork of this world. And that’s just another instance of how the style of it all worked in tandem with the story’s emotionality and interests.

As far as finales go, I think #10 worked quite well. It promises an ending, for sure, and whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be experienced by the reader. But what I will say is that the ending is definitive (enough), and it clicks the way it ought to click. Because it’s never about plot points or the like, but instead what we make of endings. They’re never easy, but when the characters are at the center, they’re always easier to manage. That, and it ultimately feels like a grander metaphor for life: nothing is certain, but as long as there’s a horizon, we can make it through anything.

It’s a story about the journey as much as the destination (kinda like love, amirite?!), and the weird and wonderful twists along the way. Because “this place” isn’t a haunted farm or anything in the world — it’s about forging happiness with what’s there. And with its many parts and interests and the like, this book gave you so much to love.

Final Thought: Home is where the heart (and dead bodies) is.

Score: 9.5/10

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