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Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Comic Books

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Even more reviews of comics from DC Comics, Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, Dark Horse 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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Slow Burn #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Slow Burn sure is an ironic name for this white-hot piece of noir goodness.

It starts with the exceptional work of writer Ollie Masters (Snow Blind), who sets the stage for a tale about a junkie, Roxane, teaming up with her boyfriend, Luke, for a robbery that’ll get the lovebirds and Luke’s senile grandfather free from the hell of New York. But, as you’d expect, things go very wrong and the trio end up hiding out in a “coal mining ghost town in central Pennsylvania.”

And from that, Masters presents a true master class in proper noir. The trio’s dynamic is certainly one of the more novel decisions — it’s just fresh and new enough to get us to rethink some of the character roles we assign to the larger genre. From there, there’s a slew of other little decisions and additions — what they stole, the sharp, organic dialogue, the expert use of time and flashbacks, the unassuming framework offered by this specific ghost town — that make this such a powerful addition to an old but beloved canon. It made me think of True Detective in terms of the sheer audacity in which it approaches the genre, but with much more intensity and brutality to make this story feel truly special.

And a big part of that is, as I’d mentioned, the pacing. The whole story is pretty much laid out in the first couple of pages (thanks to the art/visuals, but more on that in a bit). And what follows feels like all this rich detail and coloring that makes everything feel bright and in our faces. Plus, that “speed,” as it were, really suits this story — it makes the action-heavy bits (like the way the crime itself plays out perfectly in a rapid-fire flashback) feel more vivid while helping to add real tension and unease to the “quieter” moments of Roxane sorting it all out. It’s that deliberate forward momentum that grabs you by the lapels and drags you, joyful and slack-jawed, through this amazing start this is boxer-esque levels of lean but with so many layers and textures.

Masters clearly approached this story/script like a proper movie, and that’s further supported by the visuals from artist Pierluigi Minotti and colorist Alessandro Santoro. They nail all the prerequisites of proper noir, from the focus on the simplistic but powerful displays of humanity to the way the world feels dark and gritty no matter how “minor” the scene proves to be. There’s other decisions, too — the flashbacks have a certain grey-ish hue that, while decidedly familiar, feels just subtle and novel enough that it serves its purpose (delineating time) without zapping the oodles of life across these characters’ faces and subsequent interactions.

They expertly use shadow as both a way to obscure things but de-emphasize their humanity or all-around significance, and that feels like a great way to push the story along and help us delve into and explore these characters’ motivations. And, of course, there’s certain devices — the layout of the “credits,” for instance — that further foster the cinematic appeal while grounding this firmly in the tradition of comics. (It’s also worth noting that the lettering, from the super prolific Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, is just as responsible for that movie connection, not to mention just generally fostering a lot of the intensity and emotions of these characters, Roxane especially.) The art gets ample time to shine in building this world and it supports the story at-large by rounding out its ambitions and giving us a shorthand for some of the bigger thematic moments. (For example, quick, seemingly random shots/memories serve to explore time in novel ways.)

I cannot say enough nice things about this debut (even if I started this review with some truly awful wordplay). It feels like a big-time shot in the arm amid a sea of recent noir titles — and one that nails that emotionality and heft by both committing to the genre while trying to be inventive. It’s still early, but the creative team have the makings of something big, and a story that could grab up even more eyeballs with its efficiency, grace, creative streak, and all-around prowess. Slow Burn is a ride worth taking, a city worth visiting, and an experience to be had for all its romanticism and darkness. Get this one, pronto.

Final Thought: A blazing start for a truly poignant and affecting bit of noir.

Score: 9/10

Batman / Catwoman: The Gotham War – Red Hood #2

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of DC Comics.

I enjoyed issue #1 if only for one main reason: it treated Red Hood like a star. Sure, this tie-in was all about further servicing/supporting the larger Gotham War storyline, but the creative team (writer Matthew Rosenberg, artist Nikola Čižmešija, and colorist Rex Lokus) wanted to make Red Hood a big deal. And they did so by building a compelling dynamic between him and Catwoman while extending some of the large themes of the event itself.

Yet, as tends to happen with these tie-ins, the event reared its giant head, and that meant tying things up in a neat bow for the events to come. But not only did the team do just that, they still kept Red Hood the star all along.

This issue comes directly after the events of Batman #138, in which the Dark Knight basically “edited” Jason Todd into experiencing fear any time his adrenaline spiked — making superhero-ing nigh impossible. For one, this story picked up on that idea and not only showed us something essential about Todd as a champion for underdogs, but did so in a way that furthers the storylines with “Joker” and Scarecrow. And if that weren’t impressive enough, it was also done with Todd serving not as some excuse or stand-in for their tensions but in service of the character and the specific roles he plays in fighting crime in this new and doubly bonkers era for Gotham City. Even when he was at his most afraid, Todd came off as a big deal, and it feels less like he’s being written out of the upcoming war but given a chance to really shine (and in a really interesting way to boot).

The art team did a fantastic job in crafting not only Todd’s fear — it exuded weakness in some really compelling ways and showed us a desperation that we needed for things to really hit — but some other vital moments to boot. Specifically, it was the art, and these little snapshot moments, that helped balance a few competing storylines over several titles in a tight, efficient way while, once again, keeping this little book as the centerpiece (at least for now). That continues to drive home that this title is not just a chapter in Gotham War, but how Gotham War needs this book to help land some big ideas and events (i.e., the Joker-Scarecrow stuff, Batman’s continuing slide into crazed desperation). And on top of that, we just got generally great moments like a brutal Joker-Scarecrow fight that I hope sets the groundwork for what happens when this event’s tensions do finally boil over.

The running theme of this story/issue, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is how Red Hood is treated as a proper lead. A big part of that is that this story further builds up the team around him, with some great interactions with Ravager (genius move to put these two weirdos together) and even Marquise (it’s interesting to see what role she’ll play and just how loyal she may continue be to Catwoman). And in doing so, it makes Jason Todd feel all the more significant, and that he isn’t just a proper lead in this story but he could be even more vital in the rest of the Dawn of DC era.

Every Batman-level hero needs his rogue’s gallery and supporting team, and Jason actually has some weird variation of that after this issue. Does that mean he’s destined for the A- or even B-level tier? God I hope so. But even if he’s just meant to shine for now, then he does that and so much more. But, really, let’s bring on the Red Hood Renaissance right away.

Final Thought: Red Hood is a star, no matter what Batman says/does.

Score: 7.5/10

Alice Never After #4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Amid the endless whimsy (undercut by much darker undertones), Alice Never After #3 was all about clarity. By giving us a truly grand reveal — Alice is pregnant! — we could finally go from exploring the rich tale of our young hero and her sometimes sad, mostly complicated life into something that might actually help her and push her forward in life. (More specifically, some kind of solution for her being locked away in Wonderland.)

And while #4 doesn’t quite go so far as giving us said solution ahead of the finale, there’s no denying that things are happening that are ever more intense and strange than all the talking toads in the world.

Perhaps the biggest such notion is the power that Alice has in the realm of Wonderland — and how much that might say about her continued immersion into the real world. Sure, that world is still utterly bonkers — and perhaps even more so in this issue — but Alice is clearly making grounds in realizing her position and trying to fight for herself. And that charge to our young hero couldn’t have come at a better time — she’s very clearly on the cusp of some big life changes, and her development is being handled in a way that feels important while honoring the confines/structures of this beloved and specific story.

That’s what writer-artist Dan Panosian and artist Giorgio Spalletta have tried to do since day one: tell this story in a way that does something new for the world of Alice, and to expand her fiery heart and endless charisma in a way that feels vital because it’s all about extending the framework of Wonderland. We can feel her breaking free, and this issue felt like the last bit of resistance before she returns to the land of the not-so-make-believe.

Still, I wish more had been done from a visual standpoint to facilitate some of this experience, but sadly it wasn’t the case. Instead, what we got was a lot of solid weirdness from Wonderland (courtesy, once more, of Spalletta) and a few minor bits from London (courtesy, once more, of Panosian). There were no flirtations, as it were, in this issue — moments where the barriers between the two worlds sort of blurred. I think some of that feels a tad disappointing — they were a little forced at times, but now I see just how important of a visual device they were this whole time. And it’s just as irksome that players outside of Alice feel under-utilized; Edith, her sister, felt promising and doesn’t play nearly a big enough role as she continues to fumble in helping out beyond some mostly teased notions of reminding Alice of her old self.

And, sure, that shift makes sense — the issue empowered Alice to be the one to come back. But that disconnect in the visuals and other characters 1) feels like a minor betrayal of this book’s early potential and 2) suddenly makes Alice the only vital character when that wasn’t remotely the truth till now. It’s a case of good news and bad news, really, and just when this book could’ve fired on all cylinders, it seemed like we’re left to focus mostly on Alice as the rest of the world fades a shade or two grayer.

There’s clearly lots of big threads set up for the finale in issue #5. (I haven’t even mentioned the stuff with a big reveal for the White Rabbit.) There’s every bit of evidence that we’re going to get a really great ending, and likely one where Alice emerges to take back her life and work through whatever Wonderland represents for her as a character. But it may not be as vivid of a journey as it could be, and we might only get some of the sheer potential this book offered in issues #1-3. Sure, it’ll be whimsical and weird, with subtext galore, but I followed this rabbit for so much more, and I’m afraid I won’t get quite as much satisfaction from this tea party.

Final Thought: The two worlds coalesce for better and worse.

Score: 7/10

Newburn #12

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

So far, this new “season” of Newburn has been all about Easton Newburn’s, um, continued evolution. He’s clearly shifting as his precariously balanced world grows all the more complicated. But with issue #12, we get to focus more on his assistant, Emily, and her role in all of this. Until the veritable -ish hits the fan, of course.

This Emily-centric “episode” stems from having to help out her ex, Armand, who has gotten himself into some trouble with a robbery gone wrong. It’s a nice, occasionally heavy-handed moment for the creators to demonstrate her skills and abilities as a kind of “Newburn with a heart.” Emily’s whole outlook is markedly different than her employers; even the art from Jacob Phillips feels more joyous and borderline playful as she’s interrogating baddies and beating folks up with her own collapsible baton. (It’s subtle, but there’s more focus on complex emotions on people’s faces, or that the world seems brighter somehow as if we’re seeing the same places through other, more optimistic eyes.)

I think having this focus shows just how far Newburn has come in his own mission, and why this shift feels all the more unnerving. It’s as if more of the onus is on him for reacting this way, and we see Emily’s skills and prowess in trying to maneuver this very intense world with just a shred more humanity. She’s not perfect, but that’s the point: it’s possible to keep your head about you in this world and not give into one’s darker desires.

Of course, the book also tackles that notion that Newburn isn’t just a paranoid old man and, in his own words, the wolves may really be circling the gates. I thought for a second that this spin back to Newburn’s larger arc somehow zapped the power from Emily’s tale — as if it was all a big ruse and just a way to have us looking left before Newburn came in from the right. But I think there’s something else — it’s not just that Emily is doing a better job of balancing her roles as an investigator but that she too may fall prey to the same things after so many years in the game. That, as much as this is Newburn’s own doing, it’s really a battle against time, and eventually we’ll all be eaten up by the odds.

That, in turn, extends Newburn’s own role in this mess while establishing something more ruthless about this world and how it readily chews up and spits out everyone. (And, as he did with the Emily stuff, Phillips managed to foster more over tension and unease when we “shifted” back to Newburn’s perspective.) And that’s a really nice dynamic to have — it feels vital in pushing Newburn down his own existential rabbit hole while adding in layers to this world and possibly setting up some tensions for Emily down the road (no matter where she may land after #12). The whole world feels more alive and coalescing around some big ideas and concepts, and it only makes Newburn’s journey all the more compelling and complicated while respecting the paths of individual characters.

So, in that sense, this issue really did have it all in terms of building the world but also creating new stations and arcs for characters. (Heck, even the driver, Henry, got a chance to shine on his own in this issue beyond that of a background player.) The world is bigger than it was before, and filled with more energy and a sense of foreboding that brings things to new levels of liveliness. And the fact that it’s also made it next to impossible to guess what might happen next speaks volumes about the power of this issue in pushing forward some big-time questions about who plays what roles and what’s really going to happen as things reach a fever pitch. I can tell you one thing, though: none of us are truly ready for when things definitively explode.

Final Thought: Emily may shine but this remains the story of Newburn’s downfall.

Score: 8.5/10

Black Hammer: The End #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

From the start, Jeff Lemire and Malachi Ward were clearly trying to reinvent the “multiversal event” with Black Hammer: The End. And across the first two issues, they’d mostly been successful, adding a new, more deeply human spin to these larger-than-large tales. But issue #3 proves that there’s bound to be missteps in their campaign, and their response has heaps to say about the fate of the remaining story.

More than anything, this issue felt a little lost under the sheer weight of its many storylines and subsequent universes. Enough is done to distinguish the universes and what they all are focused on individually. (For instance, Rockwood is where our “main” heroes are working out the story about wanting to preserve their lives and their call for action, while back in Spiral City the remaining heroes are battling the Anti-God.) But if you’re not a proper Black Hammer scholar, it can be a little hard to discern what’s going on and the larger importance of it — especially when so much of this book is about the characters’ interplay and how that can be lost in the sheer canon of it all.

And, as an extension of that, some of the other teams — the multiversal version of the Black Hammer squad and the Unbelievable Unteens — felt a little less important as their stories and universes get lost in the shuffle. This is a natural part of these stories, but I just feel with this issue especially we have too much at once and it impacts the value of these connections. In an issue where Barbie returns, the weight of that moment (and the chain of events it helps kick off) don’t land with nearly as much weight as we’re trying to remember which version of the Unteens popped up. Same goes with a proper reveal with the OG Black Hammer and his role — there’s some recognition of the impact but mostly it felt like another moment in the pinball game that was this entire issue.

It’s an experience complicated due to the continuously great work from Ward on the book’s visuals. I’ve commented in my other reviews, but Ward’s done a bang-up job in fostering a shared cohesion between these worlds and still giving each place its own identity. And that’s extra true here: Rockwood felt very warm and approachable, and moments of intensity (like a Barbie-Lucy Weber confrontation) stand out even more. Then, in Spiral City, we have a grittier, more pulp-inspired feel, and big moments there (like the multiverse team’s arrival) lend an air of old-school romanticism and hope amid an especially intense and dire world.

Plus, no one draws heroes like Ward, and be it Jack Sabbath or the “original” Black Hammer, they all expertly balance the sheer magic of their respective sci-fi/magic madness while feeling deeply human — they emote with such range and poignancy that the emotional toll remains clear even as the storylines tend to blur. Even as things feel different across each world/universe, there’s a cohesion and connection across every page; Ward uses this big, bold lines and vivid colors to create an identity that he can then play with/modulate to create an array of effects and outcomes. I don’t know if this sustained effort from the art was enough to help this issue’s story concerns, but it was enough to keep you moving through as you sorted out the canon in your head. Plus, as is the case with one panel with Barbie’s face, one look can bypass so much and smack you squarely in the face.

This issue struck me as both a success and a setback. The art and the continued focus on the sheer humanity certainly made a difference. And while the story’s issues were irksome (and could easily dissuade some folks from continuing on until this bad boy is collected), there’s still this sense that it’s not the end of the world (even as it is in the actual story). Rather, I think this may have been a pivot for the whole series, and a chance for it to step up into the universe-busting intensity that’s to come. The art held things down, and it’s my hope that any annoying missteps by the story can be addressed in the rest of the book as it recommits to telling this kind of story in a decidedly new way. There’s certainly lots of building blocks laid out to do so, and all we need is the quiet commitment to break down these universes in service of what truly matters most: the people.

Final Thought: Multiversal madness goes both way, it seems.

Score: 6.5/10

Lonesome Hunters: The Wolf Child#4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

For the most part, Tyler Crook had already assuaged my fears about this latest chapter of The Lonesome Hunters. After that really great first arc, The Wolf Child wasn’t just an interlude of sorts spurred on by Howard and Lupe stopping in a tiny town following car troubles. No, it was a compelling way to add to their dynamic and extend their journey to get rid of the massive sword and all the trouble it brought. The finale for this arc doubled down on all of that, and showed us just how essential this series was in general.

In issue #3, Lupe had tried to save the dying wolf by giving her the sword. As it turns out, that might have been the worst decision she could have made. I won’t spoil too much, of course, but there’s a couple really big beats that I do want to touch on. One, I think it adds to the sword’s lineage, as it were, and gives us another link in its awful chain. Then, toss in some other elements (namely, a new figure who may have a connection to the story, and some dire warnings from the Wolf Child himself) and we really see just how right Howard may have been to fear the sword. And while it makes sense that there’d be something more at play than Howard’s own cowardice, I think adding such a semi-apocalyptic tinge to the whole story plays up that Howard may be smarter and more brave than we’d first imagine. That he may be responsible for possibly stopping a very old chain of violence and destruction, and that adds to his abilities and scope as a hero.

And it’s from that notion that we get some great stuff into furthering the Howard-Lupe dynamic. She clearly feels some type of way about the events in #4, and it’s Howard who tries to connect with her and help her along in this process. I think she finally sees what Howard has seen all along, and the two are bonding around this idea of the roles they play and just how truly out of their depth they are in all of this insanity. I think having this new level to their relationship is going to be a big step for whatever comes next, and ensure that it’s always about the pair working together in new and novel ways. It’s not just some Up-ian adventure between a young girl and an old man, but people bonded over grief and trying to keep that darkness from spiraling out of control.

As much as this whole issue was a feat for Crook from a storytelling perspective, I also think it was a massive success visually. This book has always been a great mix of bloody intensity and joyous whimsy, but this issue pushed that even further forward. There were just too many highlights — a battle between the hunters and the wolf (super bloody but also a powerful way to make the sword seem like this ungodly force in this narrative); a moment with a new character from Howard’s past (it presented heaps of history and context in some really charming and cutting ways); and even just the faces depicted across this issue. (Lupe reaches new levels of desperation and pain, and that shift feels deeply impactful as we further understand her “immersion” into this world.) The whole issue felt like a proper achievement in maintaining the world’s consistency while also spinning in more blood or darker undertones and the like to really build out this universe. As an extension of that, a new sword-related character is introduced, and I love how stark and vivid their presence is while remaining connected to the book (their choice of clothing certainly helps…)

It’s that character that I’m sure will be a massive presence in whatever the next chapter of this story may be. (There best be a new book, Dark Horse, or I’m coming for ya.) But no matter the paths this story takes, and the kinds of threats and foes lie ahead, I know that it’s going to be a powerful dissection of friendship, the nature of grief, the ways in which we try to control the world’s darkness, and what a thing like hope might actually look like. The Wolf Child, though, was a mighty addition to this wonderful canon, and it bit through the uncertainty to deliver a stark new chapter of a powerful story of humanity in very inhumane settings.

Final Thought: A biting end to the latest chapter of this deeply personable adventure story.

Score: 8.5/10

Savage Squad 6 #4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

Like all good horror properties, Savage Squad 6 must come to an end. But what we think is the showdown between our final girl, Nat, and the giant atomic wolves becomes so much more — and a propel sign as to exactly why this story was such a massive success in the first place.

Here’s one of those places where I’d really like to spoil more, but I just can’t. What I can say, however, is that the Nat-wolf confrontation is a chance to take this tale out of its horror-leaning dalliance and back into the realm of a proper action flick. And with that, we get a chance to eschew that aforementioned final girl shtick and tell something that feels connected with the story while honoring it as a tale of this extra savage band of misfits. But it’s more than just that “not everyone may have to die” — I think it shows just how novel the narrative from writers Robert Venditti and Brockton McKinney has been this whole time. It’s constantly zigged when we thought it might zag, and that’s made what could have been a direct and entertaining story all the more rich and complicated.

And from that level of complexity, we get to see the whole team dynamic play out in some inventive ways, and means and methods that feel focused on the humanity and emotionality of this group. Those peaks and valleys, as it were, meant the team felt all the more organic, and they were able to explore themselves through this genre-spanning lens that felt just as bloody and silly.

A rather big part of that function has been the art from Dalts Dalton and Geraldo Filho. Sure, it didn’t really look too much like a horror movie — unless you count the metric tons of blood and giant wolves — but that’s not the point. There were moments — sudden returns and even some great pauses/delays in issue #4 — that played with those horror tropes even as the book “transitioned” away from them almost entirely. But mostly, and across all four issues, we got a really frenetic and intense art style that made explosions and chase scenes feel really vivid and exciting while also keeping a very intimate perspective for the team’s shared bonding and subsequent evolution.

In issue #4, especially, that balance between big-time action and quieter intimacy felt especially powerful, and a massive explosion could delight the eyes at the same time it gave us time to root for the team and their wellbeing (or the lack thereof). All the time, though, it was about maximizing the grit and imperfectness of it all, and that made a huge difference in the way this book felt from an emotional standpoint.

I’m genuinely going to miss new issues from Savage Squad 6. I think the book certainly sets up a future for itself, but who knows if that can ever manifest. But if it doesn’t, we still got one whizbang of a tale, and a proper mix of action and horror that felt eternally in service of this wild bunch of humans. Not everyone made it through, but those that did are forever changed, and their new status feels like a victory in telling stories about the true nature of friendship and teamwork. The fact that it featured “atomic wolves,” and that’s somehow the least interesting part of this whole tale, speaks volumes about this generally great book.

Final Thought: The war may end but the glorious suffering persists.

Score: 7.5/10

Purr Evil #3

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

In terms of my relationship with Purr Evil, it’s mostly one of love. Sure, I don’t feel nearly young enough, or consume nearly enough Red Bull, to keep pace with it all, but I like it all the same. Writer Mirka Andolfo and artist Laura Braga have forged  this hyperactive, Gen Z-repping tale of young love (amid a world of bizarre magic and also hellish demons) with ample passion and commitment.

And all of those good vibes were really vital as we made our way into issue #4, where the neon-colored insanity continued to shine ever brighter and all the more consuming.

Featuring a murderous child, fist fights in a prison cell, and at least three different headless bodies, this issue was clearly among the most intense of an already super intense story. Yet it was also the most important in terms of development and contextualizing all that madness for the sake of a proper story. Again, not to spoil too much, but we understand Deb’s connection to the weird pink cats and why she was basically born in the first place. Let’s just say it has to do with an old and murderous god, and there’s a reason her mom, Rita, stole her away from dear old dad, Jason, before he and his weird bandmates could do anything about it. It’s a slightly insane path for the story, but also one that adds a bit of depth and consistency to it all.

It’s the first time, aside from the burgeoning Deb-Steve love affair, where some bigger emotional tentpoles emerged. Like, why Rita hid Deb away all this time, and what questions that raises about how we protect our loved ones and the nature of the parent-child relationship. And while it’s not exactly the most inventive (or even fully executed) kind of development, it does a lot to ground this story’s tendency for big, bold displays of weirdness and blood. It’s the first time I finished an issue feeling like I had some idea of why things happened and what that could mean in this larger process to understand and appreciate these characters’ journeys. I can’t say this was entirely what this book needed, but it’s clear that we’re in more stable ground, even as things promise to be more intense and unsettlingly cute and creepy than ever before.

A big part of that consistency is that the art (from Braga as joined by colorist Bryan Valenza) tried to ground these characters while presenting an equally bonkers world. Sure, we got more than our usual share of exposition, but when it comes with dead bodies, and depictions of Deb’s “evolution” in her role as matronly protector, it feels all that much easier to swallow. It was a way to drill things down, and let the characters explain their world, while letting us as readers constantly remember the kind of overt violence and sugary sweetness and playfulness that still defines this world.

The cats, especially, are more readily understood in the grand scheme of some god named Mucci, and yet that “familiarity,” as it were, never ruins the fact that they’re creepy little buggers who plague so much of this story. And that ability happens as the art doesn’t just support the narrative’s moves, but doubles down on the aesthetic that fosters the cats’ true nature while making decisions to add to and extend those same ideas with an unassuming level of deliberateness and overt passion. It felt like an issue where, as things extended into headier and more consequential directions, the art did its damn finest to remind you of the spark of weird joy that informs so much of why this book was appealing in the first place.

I can’t give up on this book after issue #4. It’s sort of shifted for me again beyond the realm of, say, wild manga or, like, a weird romance novel on poppers — it’s a daytime soap opera now. Like Passions or one of those extra weird ones, where everyone’s connected by a web of over-the-top romance and weird magical abilities. It compels me to keep going, and while it feels more solid and thoughtful than before, it’s still like experiencing the best, most vivid fever dream ever. And if #5 can build on that dynamic in the slightest, it’s a dream that I hope I never, ever ends.

Final Thought: I continue to fall deeper and deeper for this wacky little tale.

Score: 7.5/10

Paladin of Axes #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 10/25/23

Courtesy of Image Comics.

If I can’t count candy and zombie flicks, my favorite part of this year is one-off horror comics. Often in anthologies, but occasionally released on their own, they’re a great way to celebrate the season by basically combining The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. And as far as treats this year are concerned, Paladin of Axes is all treat and no trick. (OK, just a little trick.)

Here, Gerry Duggan and David O’Sullivan reunite after the excellent work on Analog for the story of Hector “Paladin” Gonzalez. A roadie/guitar tech for a beloved ’70s rock band, Hector dies in a plane crash — only to be reborn with a different job, collecting magical artifacts. There’s a whole grandiose mythos involved, but that’s sort of the gist of it all for the sake of this review. What also matters is that Hector is a really great intro into this world, and the kind of lovable loser who serves as the perfect foil for these weird magic and time-traveling shenanigans.

More than that, his life issues (never following his dreams) are a spark for a ghoulish tale that explores how we’re all on borrowed time and what we’re willing to do to make our dreams a reality. This book certainly operates in that The Twilight Zone-Tales from the Crypt realm of imagination, but it does so with way more heart and humor. It’s about building the same kind of story — life lessons learned harshly — and doing it in a way that feels grounded and approachable. It furthers a really great storytelling tradition with a character you actually want to root for (most of the time).

Of course, the connection we have with Hector isn’t just Duggan’s characterization; it’s the world O’Sullivan builds around him. Starting from the root of English/Irish fae stories and archetypes, this world is quickly forged into a kind of smorgasbord of horror archetypes. There’s black magic, zombies galore, portals and time travel, and much, much more — basically, a proper smattering of everything you’ve seen before from the best horror stories. The twist, then, is that O’Sullivan’s style and approach are novel and inventive; he brings the grit and whimsy in equal measure, and it makes for a world that feels fun to explore alongside Hector while adding some real terror to the story’s larger morale, “Don’t mess around with your life, dummy.”

Hector often feels like the center of gravity in the book’s depiction, and that helps us gauge just how much of a bizarre turn we’ve made in this genuinely dark and unpredictable world (that is still very much about magic as this kind of glowing representation for life itself). It’s hard to truly explain the scope of this world, and there’s history baked into every weird gnome and freaky demon-person and haunted piece of machinery. But it’s always positioned to support Hector as he learns his ghastly lesson and tries to understand the gift (and curse) he may have been given. And if that ain’t life, then I don’t know what is!

This oversized single issue could have easily become a proper series — I’d have followed Hector for ages as he tracked down more magic and reflected on just how he is or isn’t living his best (after)life. But we just get the one, and we have to enjoy it for what it is. Which is a weird and wild modern fable, of sorts, and a tale to make us think about our own lives through the many wonders and horrors experienced by our solid hero. It’s like so many other seasonal tales but it’s something all the more pointed and romantic, especially as it uses and uplifts art/music in its dissection of what it means to truly have purpose.

It’s a pillow case of candy you’ll eat too quickly and spend the rest of the night happily digesting (while hating yourself for the stomachache).

Final Thought: For fans of life lessons told in the most horrific way imaginable.

Score: 8/10

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