New Comic Reviews! (5-17-16)

Red Hood Arsenal 12

(Red Hood / Arsenal)

Red Hood / Arsenal #12

“Vote Now and Vote Often!”

Scott Lobdell (writer), Joe Bennett (pencils). Cover by Tyler Kirkham.

We’re two weeks out from DC Comics’ big Rebirth attempt, the publisher’s latest attempt to alienate any fans that aren’t forty-year-old white guys. Every one of DC’s non-Vertigo titles is slated either for cancellation, or a shiny new issue number one. Against all odds, one of the Rebirth titles is a new volume of Red Hood and the Outlaws, once again penned by Scott Lobdell.

Way back in the far-off time of September 2011, Lobdell’s RH&tO was one of the worst launch titles of the New 52 line. The book was critically panned, yet somehow lasted for over forty issues. Was there anyone out there who enjoyed that nihilistic garbage? Apparently so, because rather than cancel the book, DC relaunched it as Red Hood/Arsenal, with the same writer at the helm – presumably because no one else gives a toss about either of those characters at this point. And here we are, with the penultimate issue of RH/A on the racks, and a new volume of Outlaws after that. If anyone out there knows just what Scott Lobdell is using to blackmail DC into publishing this tripe, let me know – or leak it to Gawker, while you still have the chance.

Red Hood/Arsenal #12 continues the recent storyline that revealed a dark time in Arsenal’s past, when a group of mercenaries he assembled went off the rails and massacred an entire town. Instead of taking any kind of responsibility for the atrocity he was absolutely responsible for, Arsenal instead trapped the team in the shell of a wrecked building, then commandeered a drone plane to blow them to pieces. Because this is a comic book, the team of mercenaries survived and gained superpowers to boot, and now the Iron Rule (as they laughably call themselves) are out for revenge.

There’s an element of meta-humour to Arsenal’s predicament – captured by the Iron Rule, he finds himself at the mercy of an online “live or die” poll, which leans overwhelmingly in favour of his execution. For those not in the know, that’s a pretty obvious reference to a poll DC conducted for Jason Todd (Red Hood) back in the 1980s, back when Todd was still running around in elf-booties as the second Robin. The fans weren’t much kinder back then, and Batman quickly found himself auditioning for a new sidekick. Based solely on that, I’d almost give this comic the benefit of the doubt, if it weren’t for the fact that by page two, someone describes Arsenal as “charming,” which is a pretty clear sign that Scott Lobdell and I aren’t going to be on the same wavelength any time soon. Plus, by the end of the issue, they go back and all-but spell out the gag, because I guess anyone reading this title was too stupid to catch it the first time. A wise man once said, jokes are like frogs – you can try to dissect one to see how it works, but it definitely won’t survive the process.

The other story thread continued from last issue involved Red Hood’s attempts to help the Joker’s Daughter reform and become an antihero like him. With almost any other character, that idea might have worked, but from her very first appearance in the New 52 DC Universe, Joker’s Daughter has been shown to be utterly psychotic and without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, she’s so one-dimensional that she’s served little purpose other than being a plot device – in this case, proving that both Jason Todd and Scott Lobdell make remarkably poor decisions. Anyway, after Joker’s Daughter went back to her old habits of wearing her leathery face mask made out of the Joker’s severed facial skin – I’m going to just let that one sink in for a second – Jason decided the best way to deal with her was to shoot her in cold blood. You can see why Arsenal and Red Hood keep being teamed with one another; they share the same problem-solving skills. This issue, we see that he didn’t kill her – in fact, after putting a bullet in the Joker’s Daughter’s chest, Jason was even nice enough to call her an ambulance. So why then did he shoot her at all? If he wasn’t going to kill her, why not just use his vastly superior martial arts skills to incapacitate her and drag her off to Arkham Asylum? Well, obviously if he did that, he couldn’t brood in the shadows, monologuing about who the real crazy-people-wearing-dead-guy’s-faces really are.

This comic does have one positive thing going for it, and that’s Joe Bennett’s artwork. Though he’s mostly wasted on a subpar script, his clean lines and dynamic page layouts shine through, especially his fantastically creepy flashback to the Joker maniacally beating Jason with a bloody crowbar. In fact, here you go…

 

Joker

 

I just saved you three bucks. Go spend it on a better comic.

Darth Vader 20

Darth Vader #20

“The Shu-Torun War pt. 5”; “The Misadventures of Triple-Zero and Beetee”

Kieron Gillen (writer), Salvador Larroca and Mike Norton (artists). Covers by Mark Brooks, Reilly Brown and John Tyler Christopher.

When Marvel Comics and their Disney taskmasters officially launched their line of Star Wars comics last year, they seemed bound and determined to fight the unfair stigma that licenced comics, by and large, suck. Sure enough, thanks to some of the best writers and artists in the business today, Marvel’s Star Wars comics have been excellent, with Darth Vader perhaps being the best of the bunch. Set in the aftermath of the first Death Star’s destruction at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, the follows Vader as he recovers from the Empire’s first major defeat. Complicating matters further is Vader’s discovery that he has a son – a revelation that takes place in the single greatest scene in all of comics from last year. Seriously, go Google that shit. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that awesome? Who would have thought you can get that much emotional impact out of a dude wearing an expressionless robot mask?

Anyway, this issue finds us nearing the end of the series’ fourth story arc. Vader has successfully dispatched his would-be rivals for his position as Emperor Palpatine’s apprentice, and now he’s off for revenge against the traitorous Doctor Cylo, the mad scientist who transformed Anakin Skywalker’s charred and de-limbed husk into the bad-ass cyborg we all know and love. Meanwhile, Vader’s agent Doctor Aphra has been captured by the damned, dirty Rebels. With the man himself otherwise occupied, Vader assigns her rescue to his personal Droids, 0-0-0 and BT-1 (Triple Zero and BeeTee, lovably murderous counterparts to C-3PO and R2-D2)… and naturally, if they can’t save Aphra, they’re to ensure her silence by killing her, and everyone else in sight.

Though setting this series in such a dense period of Star Wars lore ran the risk of handcuffing it creativity, Kieron Gillen has managed to carve out his own niche, building on both the classic Star Wars trilogy and the often regrettable prequels, bringing life and resonance to these characters in a way that few writers have successfully done so before.  The highlight of this issue is a brilliant monologue from the Emperor, charting his rise to power through the sacrifices of his previous protégés, Darths Maul and Tyranus. The speech does more to develop Emperor Palpatine’s motivation, personality, and his complex relationship with Vader than all six movies he appeared in. Instead of being an inscrutable shadow or a ridiculous caricature (or an old woman with chimpanzee eyes – look that up too), this Emperor is a Machiavellian genius, whose unwavering belief in his own vision is magnetic enough that you can absolutely understand why a troubled Anakin Skywalker would be drawn to him. At the same time though, Palpatine is shown to be fallible, his control of his Empire threatened by internal back-stabbing and the constant threat of betrayal. He maintains order through sheer willpower and constant manipulation – and though Vader is one of the few willing to call the Emperor on his bullshit, he remains loyal to him… at least up to a point.

What really strikes me about this series is that, far more so than in the movies it draws from, every character is smart, and their actions always make sense. Nothing is done simply for the sake of plot convenience – there’s no mouthy Admiral sassing Vader, just so the audience can see him get Force choked to death, while Vader spouts a bad-ass one-liner about his disturbing lack of faith. In this comic, Vader’s allies and enemies alike understand what he represents, and what he’s capable of – as much as anything, he’s treated as a virtual force of nature. His agent Aphra knows that Vader will inevitably kill her, but willingly serves him because, well, what else is she going to do? In this issue in particular, an enemy of Vader’s makes a point of not even bothering to try to deceive him, because come on, this is Darth Vader, it’s just not going to work.

Like most Star Wars tie-ins, the Darth Vader comic pays slavish attention to continuity, particularly in the form of visual details. This absolutely plays to Salvador Larroca’s skills, who shows an almost obsessive technical precision toward weapons, uniforms and ship-designs (for the most part anyway, there’s one background image of an Arquitens-class Imperial light cruiser that slightly off model, and I’m sure that put the fine folks at Wookieepedia into a right tizzy, but we’ll chalk that one up to artistic license). I could offer some mild complaints about Larroca’s style of drawing oddly incongruous faces, where his heavy rendering meshes awkwardly with colorist Edward Delgado’s vivid pallet choices – that’s entirely superficial and subjective though, personal tastes aside, Larroca’s artwork on this series is excellent. It’s certainly striking in any case, especially compared to this issue’s back-up story drawn by Mike Norton, which is perfectly fine, but fails to stand-out in any real way.

Darth Vader is a series that treats Star Wars as the grand space opera that it always should be, balancing an epic scale with some of the finest character moments the franchise has ever seen. If you’re not a Star Wars fan already, this book probably won’t convert you, but if you’re at all into the source material, this is well worth checking out.

Catwoman 52

Catwoman #52

“Faceless pt. 2”

Frank Tieri (writer), Inaki Miranda, Pop Mahn and Giuseppe Cafaro (artists). Covers by Joshua Middleton and Inaki Miranda

Shifting our attention back to another of DC’s lame-duck series, we have one of the more conspicuous Rebirth cancellations. Catwoman had a resurgence of sorts over the last few years, with former writer Genevieve Valentine revitalizing things with a new direction that saw Selina Kyle mostly hang up her catsuit to focus on running a major criminal empire. Once Valentine left the book, Frank Tieri quickly brought things back to the old status quo of jewel heists and dead fences. Although there was none of the innovation Valentine brought to Catwoman’s world, her take on the character admittedly wasn’t universally accepted, so at the very least Catwoman purists were happy with the return to form.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Tieri joined the series just as it was winding down toward cancellation. He’s done a decent job introducing some new ideas while evoking better Catwoman comics of old (especially Selina’s Big Score, a clear inspiration to Tieri). The thing is, how much can anyone accomplish when you know all of your ideas will be rendered meaningless as soon as you’re gone?

This issue has Catwoman caught between the Black Mask and the White Mask, having just learned that she has a very personal history with the latter. The False Face Society looms in the shadows, there’s a cursed artefact, and solicitations for this issue promise that Selina Kyle’s life with be changed forever. It won’t, though. Even if this issue ended with any sense of resolution – and it doesn’t – none of this matters as of next month. Everything Tieri’s done in the past six months will be swept away by the tides of Rebirth, and the odds are good that none of this will ever be referenced ever again. Catwoman will eventually resurface in the pages of another book, but elements like the Faceless Skull and the White Mask will be forgotten.

That isn’t to say that anything exceptional will be lost. Tieri’s story here was average at best, likely rushed to fit into the final issue. It concludes with a non-ending that resolves nothing. As for the artwork, nothing takes me out of a story faster than inconsistent work brought on by several different artists trading off pages in the same issue. It’s fine when it serves a narrative purpose (like the flashback sections of this issue), or the different artists have complementary styles, but that’s not the case here. With Inaki Miranda, Pop Mahn and Giuseppe Cafaro all sharing joint credits for pencils and inks, there are too many chefs in the kitchen. When you have can’t even maintain a consistent design for your main villain from one page to the next – especially when the work is further muddied by three different colorists.

Honestly, I’m disappointed – as one of the New 52 titles, Catwoman’s quality was always uneven, but after such a hot streak in 2015, I wish it wasn’t going out on a whimper and a mewl.

All-New X-Men 9

All-New X-Men #9

Dennis Hopeless (writer), Mark Bagley (pencils). Covers by Bagley, Pasqual Ferry and Ken Lashley.

This month’s issue of All-New X-Men begins a three-part tie-in to the current “Apocalypse Wars” storyline, a loose crossover between the current X-Men titles that I expected to have very little interest in. Of the titles involved, All-New X-Men easily has the best hook, as the time-displaced Beast and his teammate Genesis (the teenage clone of Apocalypse) find themselves sent back to ancient Egypt to witness Apocalypse’s rise first hand.

Beyond the trappings of an “event” storyline, this serves to highlight the main theme of Dennis Hopeless’ All-New X-Men, that being the battle for one’s soul. In this series, Genesis seeks to escape what he fears is his destiny, to become the same “megalomaniacal world-ending steroid Hitler” as the original Apocalypse. The teenaged Cyclops faces a similar conflict, having been brought to the present day only to learn that he shares a name and face with the most hated mutant terrorist in the world. The young Beast struggles with feelings of inadequacy over his failure to find a way to bring himself and his friends back to their own time, away from a darker modern age that he worries will corrupt them all. Oya is torn between her deep commitment to her faith, and a church that condemns her mutant powers as being satanic in nature. Since coming out as being gay, Iceman now finds himself pushing away teammates who were like brothers to him, because he no longer knows how to interact with them as he did before. Angel continues to deal with the repercussions of breaking up with Wolverine (the teenage girl version, not the short hairy guy), who he desperately loves, but cannot bear to watch acting in her reckless and self-destructive way.

That’s a lot of pathos for one comic series, but I’d argue that it all adds up to a larger idea – the battle for the soul of superhero comics in general. By that, I mean the ability to tell a gripping story without resorting to lazy conventions like shock violence, gratuitous sex and Women in Refrigerators. This is a comic that has the potential to connect with young readers in the way the first Marvel Comics of the 1960s did, providing entertainment not just for kids, not just for 40 year old men, but for everyone to enjoy.

There are a lot of fun things about this issue. You have ancient Egyptian battles, a scene of the Beast experimenting with a ton of obscure time-travel devices from old comics (my favourite being the time-crystal baseball bat from the Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine miniseries), and the pure awesomeness of Deejay Kid Gladiator. That’s not what I’m going to take away from this issue though. The thing that will stick with me is the scene where Genesis thinks about how exhausting it is to constantly maintain a happy face for the outside world, while hiding the depression or anger he feels inside. That’s something that hits incredibly close to home for me – moreover, it’s as poignant to me at age 30 as it would have been if I were reading this at age 15. Given the concepts involved in this series, I could see it resonating with a lot of readers in the same way.

As an aside, as I was writing this set of reviews, the news just broke that Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. Cooke was one of the greatest Canadian comic creators of all time, whose timeless art at brought life to overlooked classics, and brought a grace and charm to every page he created. He’s probably best known for creating DC: The New Frontier, which is fantastic, as are his run on The Spirit and (funny enough) Catwoman. At a time when so many comics looked virtually identical to one another, his retro 50’s pop-art style always stood out as something fresh and exciting. Beyond his nostalgic style though, Cooke was a master storyteller, both as a writer and artist. His death leaves behind a void that few could ever hope to fill – but hopefully not for lack of trying, because if there’s one thing every aspiring artist in the medium could learn from, it’s the sense of inspiration, optimism, joy, and sheer love of the comic book craft that shone through Darwyn Cooke’s creations.

Darwyn Cooke

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