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Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

Comic Books

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

New comics reviews from DC Comics, BOOM! Studios, Mad Cave, and Image Comics!

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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City Boy #4

DC Preview: City Boy #4

Courtesy of DC Comics.

In a lot of ways, issue #4 of City Boy is a turning point for young Cameron Kim. It’s here that he really begins to tackle some of the trauma of his early life, and begins to try and reconcile with the “ghost” of his mother’s abandonment by using his mighty city-centric powers. It’s also the place where he personally begins to see his larger relationship with cities as this powerful metaphor for interpersonal relationships.

It’s these two elements together that continue to speak to the ongoing journey and evolution of our fair Cameron and why he feels like a compelling new voice amid the Dawn of DC. As his powers grow — Minkyu Jung and Sebastian Cheng’s art continues to play with his city-controlling abilities in some novel but poignant ways — Cameron is developing into a truly multifaceted person, one who seeks comfort and connection but is afraid of being overwhelmed by these ideas in which he can’t fully control. In this way, writer Greg Pak is really making good on the core promise of this book: fostering a new hero for a new age and emphasizing ideas to reframe/rework the hero’s journey while contextualizing these super-sized stories for more intimate purposes.

At the same time, however, this book is also another kind of revelation in that it’s sort of locked into a formula of sorts.

After issue #3’s robust journey across Metropolis, we can basically swap in Nightwing for Superman amid the same kind of tale in #4. Sure, Nightwing and Cameron have some past, and Dick Grayson is a solid parallel for City Boy’s own arc so far. (Nightwing also further shows off his heartfelt leadership abilities that make him vital to Dawn of DC.) But it’s the same kind of journey, with another city avatar (this time, a bat), more trouble with Intergang; and Cameron moving on to a different city/hero by the end of the issue. To some extent, this formula could be excused, given that’s sort of the arc of most Big Two comics nowadays, and there’s still some deep emotional content to be found here. The issue, then, is that it’s hard to discern how much of an effect this latest adventure had on Cameron, as he still outwardly grapples with his role without reflecting on some of the insights he’s gleaned about a new kind of heroism as represented by Nightwing.

He’s clearly a dynamic and evolving young do-gooder, but more certainly could be done to soften Cameron and make him far more open to these adventures, which would make him a more engaging participant and not just a mere tourist in his own story. All that said, I’m happy to follow up to the next stop — it might involve The Green?! — albeit with the hope that a little twist in the proceedings can make all the difference. Otherwise, city life’s going to get a little stale when there’s still such a powerful world at the core of this book.

Final Thought: New town, same Boy.

Score: 7/10

The Sacrificers #2

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Rick Remender has made a career of torturing his characters. From the multiversal character dissection in Black Science to the intergalactic beatdowns in Fear Agent, Remender does his worst to his heroes to wring out the most truth. But few of his stories have felt as deliberately violent and exacting as The Sacrificers.

In issue #1, we meet a young bird boy (who is only ever called Pigeon) as he lives in his family’s dirt shed, waiting to be sacrificed as part of some grand act of devotion to that realm’s gods. Life as a so-called Sacrificer is especially painfully dark and bleak in a story world that felt like an extra depressive version of The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Ring. Issue #2, then, strings us along by offering some small hope. Pigeon meets another Sacrificer who tries to instill within him a sense of divine purpose while showing him grace and kindness he’s never known. (Even at the same time as he sees new levels of rage and hate among some of his other sacrifices.)

Through this shift, Remender is clearly interested in not only torturing his darlings but us to boot, masterfully manipulating the situation to draw out the most from Pigeon’s journey and make us feel the light before something inevitably drops us back into the realm of unbridled psychic pain. The fact that we can care so much already is a testament to his skills as a storyteller and the connective material of this haves and have-nots story that speaks volumes to our current political moment.

It’s a process made all the more complicated and equally effective thanks to the art by Max Fiumara and Dave McCaig. Where the sense of light ebbs and flows from the narrative, there’s always been a sense of joy abounding the very design of the world. Even as it proves just as dark — beatings, angry fire gods, screaming faces of malnourished prisoners, etc. — you can’t help but feel that very shimmery divinity in the art.

Issue #2, especially, had these vital moments (like the introduction of our more hopeful Sacrificer) where you can feel the light crack through all of that bleakness, and you nearly feel the warmth and power of this book. I kept thinking that it was either a powerful device to trick us for some grand turn down the road or that this much unwavering beauty will always be a mighty counter to the darkness and misery of the story proper. Either way, it’s a great way to contextualize the story and not just build a world but force us to consider the importance of beauty, the fleeting grace of life, and even how we manage to live in a world that only promises us fear and pain.

I think where the story is so dedicated to drawing out these sharp emotional responses and letting us explore those resulting reactions, the visual elements seem more than pleased to extend that emotional spectrum as to complicate the process for our own engagement while just giving us something to latch onto as Pigeon and company dig deeper into our hearts and minds. There’s so much quiet grace abounding in a clenched fist or a lingering look that your emotions explode into various new ideas and directions.

It’s easy to paint this as another solid entry from Remender and his equally solid collaborators. But I think where those other titles-series did some good work, this one is truly special. It’s many layers engage and infuriate, uplift, and decimate with such fluidic grace that I never know where I stand, and that’s a huge accomplishment. It’s a book that’s focused not on suffering as a means of worldbuilding or fostering some faux air of depth. Rather, it’s about locking the reader and the characters together on a journey through a deeply human experience. Who knows the destination (much like Pigeon and company), but this journey will leave most of us wholly changed.

Final Thought: Get ready to sacrifice some real tears.

Score: 8.5/10

Swan Songs #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

I sort of love that W. Maxwell Prince has made a career of anthologies. Forget some grand, endless canon; he can still tell succinct and powerful stories all he wants through books like the Ice Cream Man and this more recent Swan Songs. That latter book, especially, seems to really capture what Prince does really well as well as some of the key issues of his various done-in-one stories/projects.

Like issue #1, issue #3 focuses on the end of the world — this time, two survivors of a nuclear holocaust in Adeline and Evan. Cue a cutesy but also unsettling story that sees the young lovebirds rebuild a new world — until they run into some, let’s say, troubles with another group of survivors, three scientists. I won’t spoil how that ends, but it highlights a core issue of some of Prince’s stories: they’re sort of overly direct in their purpose. They’re wonderfully crafted and full of endless poetry and beautiful moments (like the couple’s convos and a hilarious gag with the narration). But the end result — what they speak to about the human experience — maybe feels a little predictable and/or underdeveloped. This issue, especially, provides insights or readily highlights some component that ultimately rings as feeling smart but never especially inventive, like a great song we’ve heard a few dozen times before.

And, of course, you can’t discuss Prince’s power as divorced from the work of his collaborators, and artist Filipe Andrade deserves ample praise for this issue’s overall effectiveness. His minimalist style never feels lacking in depth and significance — if anything, by stripping out a lot of detail, he focuses on the most essential aspects of this world. He manages to capture both the horror and promise of this brand-new world, playing with a few solid color choices (god, all of that red speaks volumes) to create something that feels both alive and powerful with a slight air of unease or this unshakable sense that something’s just…off.

Where Prince’s narrative may take its time to get to a mostly solid point, Andrade spends the entire issue building up some real layers, giving us quiet romance, endless humor and heart, and just enough dissonance and static to shock the system in other ways. It’s a maddening rush of emotions, and it perhaps fulfills the promise of this book/project in ways the story alone simply could not. I’d invite you to spend a few minutes with the bulk of the panels here — Andrade’s work feels packed with ideas and sentiments and yet maintains a bare-bones approach that really puts the onus on readers to crack the layers here. And while you’re lingering over a panel, maybe spare a thought for the story.

There’s still heaps to enjoy about the narrative arc — what we get is nonetheless heartfelt and engaging even as it feels a tad impermanent. It’s like watching a sunset (in the middle of a dystopia, of course), and the value isn’t that it lasts but that it should move you regardless. Plus, there’s always the ending in issue #4 to look forward to.

Final Thought: Love is weird, beautiful, and maybe a tad predictable.

Score: 6.5/10

Hunt for the Skinwalker #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Regardless of the medium, adaptations are always super tricky. And Zac Thompson and Valeria Burzo clearly had their hands full with Hunt for the Skinwalker. Adapted from the titular 2005 book by researcher Dr. Colm Kelleher and investigative reporter George Knapp, the story follows the Gorman family as they move onto their new Utah ranch, which just so happens to be the epicenter of some truly bizarre paranormal phenomenon centered around the Skinwalker.

From a narrative standpoint, I think Thompson has the hardest time, and it’s reflected in the story itself. I love the family drama and the overt tension he fosters throughout issue #1 — we can see this family trying desperately to keep it together amid this brain-shattering turn of events. At the same time, though, the book also tries to reflect and include some of the nonfiction elements of the book, and that’s where it can feel a little dry. It’s showing a lot of the legend and lore of this and not letting the family mostly settle into it all as much as they might have otherwise. When they do, though, the book itself comes alive in a way that feels deeply exciting as we learn about the world and the madness within while rooting for the family. It’s here that we feel most connected, like the Freeling clan in Poltergeist.

Where the book doesn’t struggle, however, is when it comes to the art from Burzo and colorist Jason Wordie. I love the gritty, vaguely nostalgic tone of the art as if we’re reading some Halloween-themed version of a bootleg Archie comic. But that’s among my highest honors, as all of that weird energy and cheesy down-home tendencies do a bang-up job keeping a grounded focus on the family and fostering the bulk of their more compelling narrative. When we do see something extraterrestrial — be it the nasty Skinwalker or the alien “RV” — it feels connected back to a tradition of wonderfully kitschy sci-fi that enhances the work of this book and places it alongside some really great stories. There’s nothing overt about the design of the creatures and other phenomena depicted within, but that feels like a great way to further ground this story and connect it deeply to our own world/experiences.

Whether or not you’re a believer is mostly moot — there’s a depth and power to what’s mostly an already solid family tale that happens to involve otherworldly monsters. It’s that energy that has me letting go of most of the issues I had with this book, which, aside from the nonfiction bits, is a deliberate pacing that might not be the best tempo for some readers. It may be early, but this book is already expertly laying the groundwork for something that could land very close to home and invade our lives with quiet terror.

Final Thought: When you’re not learning, you’re busy feeling all of the things.

Score: 7/10

Quest #2

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

OK, why couldn’t this have been the actual debut for Quest?! Because after that somewhat promising, decidedly irksome first issue, it’s #2 that feels like a proper start and a reminder of the truly solid elements at work here. (And it’s most certainly not another instance of, “Oh, it just took an issue or two for things to get going.”)

Because issue #2 does everything that needs to be done and with heaps more heart and confidence. For one, we get a solid enough reminder of the story: Princess Anya sets out with her “Sentinel” Tor (alongside a new addition in Nuru) to rescue her betrothed Prince Devyan. From there, we skip a lot of the first issue’s sense of uncertainty and get into the true meat of the story as the group heads across the river to a library to research the demons that nabbed Devyan.

Not only does this second chapter get things moving pronto, but there’s some grand storytelling and feats of humanity from writer Jonathan Luna that abound these 20-ish pages. Whether it’s the generally funny opening gag with the guards and their helmets or a quiet moment at a villager’s hut where Anya’s parents are mentioned, there’s so much dang personality packed into the story — and it feels organic and earnest even as it’s not necessarily the most inventive spin on fantasy narratives. They’re tiny, graceful moments that present us the nougat of realness that felt most lacking and/or occasionally forced in #1.

And the art from Crystal Wood, which was mostly solid in issue #1, even had some decidedly grand moments in #2. It’s perhaps not as initially impressive as how the story underwent some evolutionary “leap,” but there’s no denying the solid backdrop that Wood’s art continues to build. Where #1 injected some novel South Asian influences to set this story apart, we get smaller touches here — the group’s whimsical mounts, the look of the outlying villages, even a dang abandoned library — that extend all of this novelty into a truly “living” world, one that reflected a lot of similar fantasy realms but maintained a new sheen to feel especially refreshing.

And speaking of that sense of novelty, there’s a moment with some “wildlife” that proves not only thrilling but further establishes this story’s world as something altogether new without reinventing the wheel. Arguably, though, the art’s biggest moment comes during a childhood flashback with Anya and Devyan — it’s a quiet game of tag between the future lovebirds where the aesthetic of this world hums bright, the moment connects brilliantly to the story itself, and it fosters the poignant emotional displays this book really needed.

If I had to try and dissect the problems with #1, it might be that this is a story best told on the road. As such, #2 showed us what that very path might look like, the simple but powerful displays of humanity that this book is interested in, and how it seeks to explore the ways in which relationships build up and enhance our individual worlds. Was this a perfect “restart?” No, I still think some of the dialogue is a tad hokey, and I worry about what time spent in a library may do for the newly heightened pacing. Still, it’s a damn solid issue whose only real crime is that it didn’t come a little bit sooner.

Final Thought: A solid improvement as things start to build and coalesce.

Score: 7/10

Crusader #1

Comics

Courtesy of Mad Cave.

I’m a sucker for that story that’s basically “badass warrior and his comic relief sidekick embark on a harrowing journey.” In the case of Crusader — from writer-artist Matt Emmons and letterer Andriy Lukin — the badass is a Templar Knight who finds himself transported to a strange fantasy realm (The Beastlands). And the sidekick is Grumble, a kind of orc-esque creature who is a little cute and acceptably annoying like Sméagol. Solid start, yeah?

Toss in a pretty intriguing big bad — a hooded fiend named Pilgrim who may be as vicious as he is a touch ambivalent and/or scheming — and you’ve got everything you need for the start of a proper adventure.

The key, then, isn’t how the story innovates but how it does the little things really right. The standoffish nature of the Knight, for one, could make for a big emotional “turn” as he accepts his situation and opens up to this wild new ride he finds himself on. Even Grumble could be a solid bit of brevity in a dark and ugly world. And while Pilgrim remains untested, he could be a solid counterpoint for the Knight’s more exaggerated and theatrical expressions of heroism.

But where the book ultimately shines is the look and feel of it all rather than being a particularly groundbreaking fantasy narrative. It’s like if 2000 AD did Skyrim — there’s lots of exaggerated line work and muted color (unless its streams of vivid blood) that play with the sense of dreariness and somber energy that also feels perfectly aligned with the brutality of this story. There’s a real chaotic energy to Emmons’ line work, and it adds heaps of grit while making it very clear that this world is out to get you. And where some fantasy tales “romanticize” their worlds, Crusader tries to be as rugged and authentic as possible, and that makes the brutality and weird magic feel all the more profound. Sure, it’s not reinventing the wheel — although there’s an extremely badass moment where the lettering is cut in half by a sword — but it doesn’t have to when there’s this much weight to the world and the people.

Of all the things issue #1 does really well, that would be that it sets everything up with savage efficiency, and that makes everything land better and invites the reader to go back and re-read the brutal festivities a couple of times. If you’re wise enough to do just that, you’ll see how every moment is packed with violence, true story magic, and deep, dark emotion. Now, grab your sword and prepare to journey into the heart of this intense land.

Final Thought: A bloody good, if not all-too-direct, tale of crusading action.

Score: 7.5/10

Purr Evil #2

Comics

Courtesy of Image Comics.

After reading issue #1, I thought about Purr Evil as being a lot like Dance Dance Revolution. It wouldn’t be the thing I’d normally turn to for entertainment, but once I got on board, I found myself thrilled (and decidedly less embarrassed than when I initially hit start).

And issue #2 sees the difficulty or whatever turned way up, but luckily, you’ve brought your very best dancing shoes.

Which, any terrible analogy aside, is just a succinct way of saying that issue #2 furthers the very heart of this wonderfully weird book by spinning a lot of different plates at once. Among other things, this issue tackles the very deal with our young Deb and those demonic cat things; how her mom, Rita, has used her daughter’s, um, novel abilities in her own bizarre career path; and the role that Deb’s dad, Jason, plays in all of this neon-colored insanity. It’s a super-stuffed tale that, like #1, is a Westernized anime running on jet fuel.

Luckily, the art keeps up with all of this madness in such a way that it makes this 55-gallon drum-sized injection of powerful drama and story lore all the easier to handle. Artist Laura Braga’s got an inventive style that keeps up the casualness and cutesy aesthetic that makes this story compelling while doing a damn good job of contextualizing all the satanic/supernatural bits without overwhelming just how much this book is like shotgunning a Slurpee with edible glitter.

It’s that melding of the cute and the creepy that gives the story some volume and heft and makes taking it all in feel akin to some massive, semi-interactive video game cutscene that is dizzying but never disorienting. Do I wish the story itself were quite as “stable”? Sure. That’s not to say that the actual narrative is especially hard to follow (even as the artwork is a welcome distraction as the story furthers itself). Rather, the story does still have a wee case of ADHD, and it tends to jump from ideas or slap various ideas together with a little reckless abandon. Yes, it’s that very same pacing that feels thrilling, but it also means that the story itself tends to move a lot.

In issue #2, especially, there’s so much thrown at us (information and idea-wise), and while the rest of the book tries to keep us engaged with art and clever editing and the like, things may have resonated even more effectively if we had a little time to sort it all out or have some moments to let one idea last longer before it jumps to the next grand thought/notion. (The only thing this book doesn’t actually give enough time to? Making the sexy father and son pair, Steve and Robert, feel like more than a plot device, but it’s fine enough for now.)

If all of that sounds too much for you, Purr Evil may be worth sitting out. But if you like the work, then watch as this book slams an (original) Four Loko, lights itself on fire, and runs around playing Van Halen guitar solos — truly a sight to behold. You may want to stretch your brain a bit before hopping aboard and getting down with this bonkers comics Conga line.

Final Thought: Gen Z culture, assassins, and demons — what more do you need?

Score: 7/10

Black Panther #4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 09/06/23

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

When we last left Black Panther (just two weeks ago, heck yeah!), T’Challa was attending a wedding. Sure, he’d partially crashed it/entered under false pretenses, but if it’s a wedding merging the two biggest crime families in Birnin T’Chaka, there are bigger issues clearly afoot. But, to a noticeable extent, issue #4 itself played out like an actual wedding: lots to love and, like an awkward drunk uncle, just enough to slightly annoy.

First, the good stuff. That mostly centered on even more compelling interactions with T’Challa and Beisa. While the Batman-Catwoman references are still a grand old joke, they’re still increasingly relevant in describing their vivid dynamic. This issue especially had a great extended monologue where the duo got to share their backgrounds and ideas about “saving” Birnin T’Chaka, which made for some really great character development and world-building. Beisa, especially, continues to reveal some compelling layers, and she’s among the better “developments” of this still-young book. And ample credit to the art team (Chris Allan, Craig Yeung, and Jesus Aburtov) for adding a lot of playful and kinetic energy to the pair’s meeting over (not stolen) curry — it further reflected their playful banter as well as making it feel like even these “slower” scenes have as much action and depth as a big showdown with a villain (which is important for later).

And speaking of villains, we get a little more face time with Deathlok. I’ve mentioned in past reviews that Deathlok just isn’t that compelling of a big bad, especially given that there’s history with Black Panther and that’s a thing mostly to be avoided in this “new” Black Panther era. (There’s so much history, in fact, that Black Panther makes a comment about a previously vulnerable control panel on Deathlok’s back.) And, yes, issue #4 does include a nice twist to further complicate who’s behind this soon-to-explode gang war across the city, with one name ominously hinted at across the issue. But starting with Deathlok left a bad taste in my mouth, and I worry that there’s not going to be a really vital villain presence across this book when T’Challa needs it so desperately as a device for further growth. It’s a shorthand for really setting this book apart, and right now it’s mostly sort of fumbled beyond some decidedly abstract notions/plans.

Luckily, the good news continues to (mostly) outweigh the bad as this issue also accomplished something else truly important: building up that aforementioned gang war. The issue really drives home this plot or conspiracy surrounding disappearing citizens and caste discrimination that likely has to do with both the existing gang families and the aforementioned big bad introduced midway through #4. I’m sort of under-explaining it (and poorly at that), but only because writer Eve Ewing did a damn good job in laying the groundwork in #4 for not only a big conflict but the much larger socio-political themes at play here. Black Panther at-large works best when there’s this singular, hugely relevant kind of focus, and this plot especially mirrors a lot of real-world tensions while making the city and our hero’s place within ripe with grander potential. Sure, some of the Deathlok-centric issues still have me feeling a tad hesitant, but there’s so much to mine from these core issues. Plus, it meant more page time for everyone’s favorite friendly young lawyer, N’Yobi.

Issue #4 actually felt like a really long wedding reception. There’s lots to see and interesting hook-ups and other developments that coalesced. But there’s also the potential that someone’s cousin gets into a shouting match (i.e., our villain issues become further complicated). Plus, there’s also that tiny thought that some of the political nuances here may go ignored or underappreciated (which is a problem of the readers and not this extra sharp creative team). Still, I can’t help but walk away feeling satisfied, even if I didn’t exactly catch the bouquet.

Final Thought: One wedding and a rather fun time.

Score: 7/10

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