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Last Call Comics: Wednesday 04/24/24

Comic Books

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 04/24/24

Even more reviews of comics from BOOM! Studios, Marvel, and Dark Horse 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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Pine and Merrimac #4

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 04/24/24

Courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

In its first two issues, Pine and Merrimac won my heart with its two leads, Parker and Linnea Kent. The lovebirds and PIs cracked the case of how you make a deeply endearing bit of noir, and their connection brought us into this rather unique caper about cults and missing girls.

The only problem was that issue #3 was something of a sizable bump in the road — there was either too much humor or just a sustained lack of momentum, and that really impacted the book at a rather crucial time in its five-issue run.

But after issue #4, it seems like we’re more or less back on track following a story-shaking ending.

No, I won’t spoil what that entails, but I can say that it left my jaw firmly on the floor. Even more than making me a little teary-eyed, I think it also crystalized some important things about this book and writer Kyle Starks in general. Known for his humorous offerings a la Old Head and Rock Candy Mountain, Starks has been using that same humor to extend and remix what we think of us a gritty-ish slice of noir. Issue #3, then, seemingly lost the plot a little as we didn’t get nearly enough heart and humanity to balance out the sheer humor of it all.

But as we see after #4, that third issue may have been a “scam,” a bit of razzle dazzle as it were, and Starks was able to make something hugely irrelevant (really, the Parker-Linnea dynamic may be among his most well-developed, massively funny dialogue to date) before then smacking us in the face with some grade-A trauma. The flow between issue #3’s irreverence and #4’s giant ending demonstrate that Starks’ whole approach may be evolving, and it feels like an even more precise and thoughtful take on what he did with the recent-ish I Hate This Place. Which is to say, build this weird and wild world around our leads, and to maximize their humanity and connection to make this pairing all the more alluring even as he further injected the world with more gravitas and heft.

After issues #3 and #4, I now fully see now that the world was growing in a very specific, occasionally irksome way only to then slam us in the face with an action that is going to test the very mettle of Parker, Linnea, and their whole dynamic. Much in the way that I believe an exit for the end of issue #4 was already hinted at (no spoiler, but it involves some supernatural malarkey), so too has Starks’ storyline been expertly layered to grab us. It goes deeper now that then great dialogue and sheer potential of the Linnea-Parker relationship — we have on our hands something that may be the most endearing and human event in a Starks story in quite some time. And while I doubted the slow shift of this book into extra silly territory, I see now the skill and depth this book employs to absolutely shatter our hearts.

And, to a similarly impressive extent, artist Fran Galán does his best to match the story’s levels of emotionality and intensity. In the previous issues, Galán’s work has been a vital part of the endless humanity weaved into every corner of this book. Quiet moments between the couple, especially, had been a great way to foster our connection and to bring us methodically and endearingly into their orbit to get us to fall for them head firmly over heels. But in this latest issue, things feel a little different.

Yes, we do get some bonding time with Linnea and Parker; it’s a quiet, unassuming moment of preparation before they strike against the cult, but it shows how much power and energy can be fostered when these two get the chance to just share some space. We also get some plenty of great action — Parker once more is a proper force in this book, and his “approach” to violence and fighting in general is both novel and refreshing as well as a proper realization of what happens when this book lets go a little and trades humor and hijinks for something altogether more intense. But in issue #4, those things come off visually in wholly new ways (to retain that same thread of “difference”).

It’s the way the pair are regarded, or the space they’re given, but some of these quieter moments feel a touch more fleeting. Sure, that’s a touch harder to get used to given the overall pacing and approach of the first few issues, but as the duo move deeper and deeper into this mystery, the settings and circumstances have to change. (In this issue, for instance, there’s a very funny, deeply uncomfortable event with furries that’s not only a nice spin for the story, but visually it’s crafted to feel appropriately jarring for our leads.)

Yet that development begins to make more sense as you consider the stakes involved and what the story is building to — like Starks’ own work with messing with our expectations, so too is Galan trying to mess with our heads. More specifically, he’s giving us these really lush and appealing moments between the couple, and regarding everything with an appropriate level of sharp color and kinetic movement to hint to us what’s next. Even if you don’t know exactly what’s coming, the end result whispers to the ol’ brain pan that something’s clearly up.

Just as we wholly crave more of that deep humanity, only to get distractions  — a dream scene with a grenade launcher or an appearance from the boorish Abigail from the debut — it’s clear that the creators are building toward something decidedly massive. The end result of that process isn’t just a massive reveal/turn, but something that feels connected to the art and the story’s process to engage us head on and mess with/trick/play around with our very ideas and understandings of this world, its layout, and how it works. The visuals are an essential function of that, and how Starks and Galan have been weaving a layered experience this entire time.

I have almost no clue how issue #5 will play out. As mentioned, there’s some solid hints involved, but if I’ve taken only one thing away from this title so far, it’s that nothing is set in stone. And I like that — it made me realize that the best stories can give you what you need and even what you didn’t think you’d need, and they do so by committing to an idea and executing it with grace, joy, and precision. In the case of Pine and Merrimac, it’s done just that and then some as the book’s spun a deeply human core in some funny, weird, and increasingly shocking directions. Whatever the finale holds, there’s a good chance it’ll cut deep all the same.

Final Thought: Get ready for some big laughs and bigger heartache.

Score: 8/10

Operation Sunshine: Already Dead #1

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 04/24/24

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

I have to admit: Operation Sunshine ended a little uneven for my taste. Sure, the whole gang — Hex, Steve, Anwar, Darryl, and Tick — had gotten together to prepare for the big heist (destroy the OV’s magic artifact and become human again) in a most compelling manner. But what I first really loved about the book was the humanity of it all. The way Hex and Steve, for instance, were bonding over their shared predicament, or how Anwar was more twisted and unknowable then riding a rollercoaster at midnight.

Luckily, all it took was a “spin-off” to get things back on course and into the realm of extra juicy storytelling.

And by spin-off, I mean we basically just get a continuation of the main story under a new title. It’s a little nonsensical for me, but if having a super cool title makes all the difference, then so be it. The only really shift that I can see facilitating the addition of Already Dead is that while the story is the same, it does feel just different enough. Here, writers Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski are really leaning into the Ocean’s Eleven aspect of this book, and issue #1 really is about every player laying out their job as they near the big heisting day. Yes, the first “book” was all about preparing for the heist in a decidedly deliberate manner, but Already Dead tries to do the same but in a way that really opens things up from a perspective of emotionality and character development.

Sure, I think the “here’s everything that’s happening” approach can be a little overwhelming and/or a touch boring, but then that’s sort of what these heists/capers are all about. And the creators don’t scrimp on a thing: be it Steve learning vampire code and working as IT for the OV shindig, or Hex/Darryl driving down to Florida together, the magic’s all in the details. Only this time around, that focus does more to extend our interests beyond the Hex-Steve dynamic (where a lot of my interest in that first story pooled). Steve, for instance, comes off more interesting and even confident, and I think that approach does wonders for his immersion in this world.

Hex and Darryl, meanwhile, actually have some solid bonding time, and while those two couldn’t be more different, we see a friendship forming in some really cool ways. And, as always, Anwar is that seedy bastard he was in the first book — he’s always so compelling in the way he plays the game, and I continue love trying to figure out just what his ultimate end goal is (aside from helping himself). So, yes, we get lots more slow, deliberate storytelling about the heist — to the point it may be too “inside baseball” for even big-time genre fans. Yet there’s just as much character work done to show us why we should care, and what happens as things coalesce and what it does for both the group and its individual players. It just takes a little more study, but it’s clear that this book is trying to have its genre heyday and still give us even more of the humanity that pushes this caper forward.

As it did with the debut storyline, it helps that we have artist David Rubin and colorist K.J. Diaz back on the grind. For that first book, I went on and on about the pair’s efforts — equally bloody and playful, silly and insane, it was the duo of Rubin and Diaz that gave so much power and energy to the slow build of the heist (and just the general look and shape of a vampire-heavy New York City). It was the art, especially, that helped show us some of the textures that the story hinted at, and gave us a look at a world that was incredibly foreign and yet increasingly accessible.

The change from NYC to swampy Florida, then, is representative of a big enough change for this book’s visual identity. You can still expect a lot of what works: the over-the-top gore; the way horrific monsters rest right on top of a grounded world; and even the mix of silliness and absurdity baked directly into the world. Only I think the change in scenarios isn’t just visually interesting — we get to see a different side of how the OVs live and operate in this book — but it proved to be a shot in the arm for this art team.

While they were clearly doing great work already, I think this latest #1 reaffirms just how important and profound this book’s core visuals are right now. The methodical pace of the heist, for example, gives them ample time for their character work — Hex, for instance, has a look here that really plays with the thematic importance of humans and monsters, us versus them. (Darryl enjoys some further “humanization,” and it’s great to see that character develop in some really key ways visually as he moves away from that soldier stereotype.)

Steve, meanwhile, comes into himself visually by embracing more monster-y tendencies this time around, and that little tweak has heaps to say about his role in the story, his relationship with vampirism, and even where he might land. And we even get to see some more nuance and detail with Anwar, and that more unblinking, wholly less glamorous vibe does wonders to try and hint at where he may land as well — without ruining/impacting the uncertainty that defines that character’s arc. Add in some other great tidbits/scenes — general vampire mayhem/carnage, more OV lore that feels both revealing and also thematically relevant regarding humanity vs. monsters, and ample detail to both engage and unsettle — and Already Dead is more of what I wanted but streamlined. Seemingly bigger, bolder, and more intense (which is still saying a lot given the first book’s power), we are ever more immersed in this world at a time when we need that power to feel connected. Not that the story alone can’t do it, but there needs layers and pockets that can’t be revealed with the plan itself.

I think one of the things that has me already convinced about Already Dead is that it’s back to having a proper ending — without revealing too much, it’s a powerful and definitive little cliffhanger that has some rather giant-sized stakes for the team’s big plan. And while it’s not just cool from a storyline perspective, it feels almost like a statement from the creative team. A declaration about the layers of internal human drama, the sheer scope and size of this book, and, yes, even a recognition that things are still only just getting started. Just wait till you see how this plan really unfolds.

Final Thought: A new title, but same old wonderful vampire hijinks.

Score: 7.5/10

Blade #10

Last Call Comics: Wednesday 04/24/24

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

There’s that one hacky trope in fiction: “Maybe the real treasure is the friends we made along the way.” And normally I’d agree with the power of 1,000 burning puke emojis, but I generally think that’s been the case across Blade.

Because even as he’s spent the last nine issues preparing for a giant battle with the demon The Adana, the Daywalker’s victory thus far has been character development. Thanks to the work of writer Bryan Hill and his various collaborators, Blade is now an even more robust and multifaceted hero, one who has learned to embrace his pain and darkness to really make a difference.

But the question begs if the 10th and final issue can give our “New Blade” the conclusion that he really deserves, or is the real victor here the twin demons of half-cocked narratives and poor follow-through?

As it turns out, I’m mostly of two minds when it comes to issue #10.

From a visual standpoint, I think the creative team (artist Elena Casagrande and colorist KJ Diaz) gave us everything we’d want for a truly mighty conclusion. While the art in this book has shifted between members a few times, the Casagrande-Diaz duo are as close to a definitive look as we can get (if we consider the book and the covers to boot). And so what we got was something that, as a baseline, felt familiar and almost “nostalgic” (even if it’s just nostalgic for, like, 10 months ago), which expertly laid the foundation for a story that had been building for months in various layers/parts.

But the pair’s real achievement was two-fold. One, we got the exact amount of action we’d want from this book and with maximum impact and emotionality. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a big, bold confrontation between The Adana vs. Blade, Tulip, and Rotha, and one that lets each character really flourish in a continuation of their personal arc across this book. (For example, Tulip was a hellfire with an assault rifle, and that tracks for the suffering and erosion of independence she’s dealt with.) There’s inventive little features — blocking a blow with a razor-sharp forearm sword! — plus the right amount of gore and kinetic energy and Adana basically being a solemn badass.

At the same time as we got just the perfect tone and level of action, this issue also gave us small moments visually that offered proper closure. Be it Rotha and her dead dad Draven, or the slight tinges of humanity to track Adana’s mid-fight “status,” it was those little touches that took some dope combat into the realm of poignant storytelling. And, sure, that’s been the M.O. for this whole book so far, but to see it happen so expertly at the end just proves that the look and feel of this book has always been about pleasing the eye as much as to make the emotionality and the character work really sing in some really interest ways/means. It’s the sprinkles on a two-foot sundae, and the sense of dedication and commitment that helped this book be both a proper action extravaganza and something altogether more personal and thoughtful.

The larger issue, then, is that I can’t say the storyline was executed with as much precision. There were several moments across the early pages that felt a little too over-the-top and involved, casting Blade as some hokey action hero and not the fully-developed warrior-monk he was moving toward across this series. (In so much as Blade can ever truly be poised and thoughtful and not an ass-kicking murder machine.) In those instances, it felt like we’d lost much of the momentum he’d made thus far, and that this whole confrontation was about blood lust and not Blade learning to embrace his many sides in order to vanquish true evil from both the world and his heart. They were small bits of dialogue, mostly, but they proved the inverse of the small visual moments: clues and context that Blade hadn’t fully connected with his humanity as we’d thought.

Luckily, the ending proper adds some much-needed context and a general sense of completeness. Without spoiling too much — although I assume you know who is winning this battle — The Adana basically makes a case for how she’s already won given her influence. And whether or not Blade handily dispatches her matters far less — even as it’s theoretically satisfying — than his final gesture. It’s one that recognizes who he is and his path of blood and violence, and it allows Blade a single moment to stop and let that all really resonate. Will he be back to vampire-smashing the next day? Sure, that’s a sucker’s bet for sure. But if all we got was that one moment of something Not Blade, then this whole dang book was worth it and then some.

Because if my argument that this book has been Blade’s immersion into a greater level of humanity, then we needed something to grab onto. It’s a small but mighty enough moment, and clear proof that it’s possible to grow and develop a character without overdoing it or writing him into a corner or taking away the character’s innate surliness that makes him so dang appealing. Maybe it might not be a massive event, but then I think a series like this is less about huge, showy demonstrations and more so what happens when we move a character along just a few steps down the board. When that happens, there’s enough to really celebrate and engage with as fans of Blade now and what he may come to represent down the line.

So, no, I don’t think this was some flawless finale, but rather one that I think did enough. Again, even if that was just “Tell a good story about Blade the person,” then the creative team are ultimately successful. Was there a small part of me that wanted something massive and grandiose? Sure, especially because I don’t think we got nearly enough closure around Rotha and Tulip. But maybe closure and happiness are things for fairy tales, and sometimes the biggest win is being just different enough from when you woke up that morning. That’s a real treasure, and Blade achieved it with the heart and skill of a proper hero.

Final Thought: A grand enough finale for a more thoughtful Daywalker.

Score: 7/10

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