Science fiction comics don’t seem to be as big a sell as you would think, even though genre and medium seem a perfect match. Maybe it’s that the superhero genre cherry picks and co opts SF tropes so effectively that most ‘straight’ SF comics feel like old news?
Whatever. Here’s an SF comic that really works. Black Science, by Rick Remender and Mateo Scalera, has a singular vision, a modernised pulp SF that combines two-fisted science heroism, lost worlds, forbidden knowledge and a reality skipping macguffin, then filters it all through a visual sensibility akin to an exceptionally lurid prog album cover.
In a striking first issue we meet anarchist scientist and professional dickhead Grant McKay already out of his depth, lost in a world of barbarous frog people, and the series barely lets up from there, drip feeding in back story as the main plot rolls ever onward.
Remender and Scalera’s collective imagination deliver six issues of varied alien weirdness, with memorable imagery but a less sprawling story than, say, East of West. Where that book has a cast of hundreds, Remender keeps us close to McKay and the people he’s dragged into this world-hopping mess.
While the hard boiled cynicism of the narration and constant conflict between the leads could seem trite in a different series, here it works, that level of bleak ferocity fitting neatly into a story of constant crisis and threat.
Whether Black Science can maintain that intensity without getting wearisome is a question for volume 2, which I eagerly await.
IDW have been publishing The X-Files comics for a while. I get them all at a standing order at my old comic shop in London (Gosh!, as if there was any doubt), and read a stack over the weekend. Here’s a few thoughts.
The core series is the ‘Season 10’ ongoing, which picks up after the TV series and startlingly dull second movie. With Chris Carter on board in some kind of approval role, writer Joe Harris has managed to cleverly reboot the series back to its baseline formula – Mulder and Scully at the FBI – without entirely overwriting what had come before. Part of the success of Season 10 is that, by making the plot device of characters coming back from the dead by mysterious means the main arc of thIt’is new season, Season 10 bakes the reintroduction of old, killed-off characters into the premise rather than doing it in a throwaway manner. Yes, it is a little bit of a cheat, but the comic is working hard to justify it in the long-term plot.
Season 10 is smart and snappy, with some great art from Michael Walsh on early issues, Matthew Dow Smith (displaying a sharper line than I’ve seen from him in the past) as the new regular artist from #11, and some mixed guest artists in between. As has always been the case since Charlie Adlard drew the Topps X-Files comic first time around, the series is most successful the clearer and sharper the line. Too much scratchy horror or curved superhero gloss and it ceases to feel like the subdued world of The X-Files.
It’s a fun ongoing, authentic to the TV show with fan pleasing touches.
Other X-Files titles have been less successful. Last week’s Annual is probably best glossed over, with exactly the miss-steps in art tone I mentioned above, and a Dave Sim written back up where a dreaming Scully talks to a floating hand representing her ex.
More interesting, and frankly bizarre, is The X-Files: Conspiracy, a crossover between the title and several other IDW licences where the Lone Gunmen hit the road to stop an imminent viral outbreak and meet the Ghost Busters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and the Crow. Most of the issues aren’t very good – the book-ends are perfunctory, and a lot of the art doesn’t feel quite up to scratch. However, two issues do jump out.
Firstly, the TMNT crossover is really fun. It helps that Michael Walsh is on art, so the book looks beautiful (with colours by Jordie Bellaire, colourist on a lot of these books – in Season 10 she’s really captured the palette of the TV show), but also that writer Ed Brisson knows EXACTLY how silly the premise is, and plays it just right. That it’s a sequel to a really fun X-Files TV episode just adds to the indulgent fun.
Secondly, the Transformers issue works in a completely different way, scratching a long term itch of mine. In showing the Transformers as you would expect them to appear in The X-Files – as mysterious, hulking figures in the dark – writer Paul Crilley and artist Dheeraj Verma (with suitably intense colours by Joana Lafuente) recapture some of the mystery and magic of early UK Transformers strip Man of Iron, a personal favourite. It’s not a masterpiece, but it did present a side to the Transformers all too rarely seen, and that gave me a thrill.
I feel weird whenever I go through an extended period of not buying Batman comics. From the tiny digests that I owned as a kid, to UK reprint titles, petrol station spinner racks and eventually visits to comic shops, Batman comics have been a staple of my comics reading. When I’ve been underwhelmed by the current DC output, or had to cut back due to lack of money, it’s felt like an unscratched itch.
Lately I’ve been getting the Snyder/Capullo Batman in paperback, which means I’m years behind, and reading the odd mix of recentish Batman titles reprinted in the UK. The Snyder stuff is great, the rest a mixed bag, and it’s all very infrequent and irregular.
I do still buy two or three US comics a week though, and so I’m susceptible to the more regular diet of a weekly Batman comic in the form of Batman Eternal – providing I can justify paying for it every week at the expense of all those all new Marvel titles, Image books etc.
Batman Eternal is a weekly book developed by a team of writers including, and presumably led by, Scott Snyder. The writing team and weekly schedule suggest something closer to the approach of a TV show than a monthly comic, and that’s what these first two issues set up, building a sprawling ensemble and setting various hares running.
The danger of a project of this scope is that twenty pages isn’t much to set up the sprawl that an epic weekly series is going to need, and indeed it’s not clear by the end of #1 the scope of what Eternal intends to be. The first issue has a flash forward to horrible future events, introduces the characters at the Gotham City Police Department via a newbie to the force, then throws us into the big action scene that’s the inciting incident for this story. It’s kind of intriging, artist Jason Fabok does very solid Bat-work in the very Arkham-game-influenced New 52 mould, but it doesn’t quite explain what this whole weekly series is actually going to be about.
#2 sets things up a lot better, exploring the ramifications of the incident in #1 and, in a final page reveal, showing who is behind it all. As such I’d actually recommend #2 as a sample more than #1 – the first issue’s events are recapped well enough, and by the end of this second issue the reader’s reaction to what is revealed should provide a good indication as to whether this is your kind of series. On one level it’s just a villain reveal, but the implications are for a story that’s wide in scope and go to the heart of what makes Gotham and the Bat cast distinctive.
It should be fun, and for now I’m in. Apart from anything else I’m curious to see how the series competes for my attention over the long haul. When I last read a weekly series, 52, I had more money and time for these things. Can Batman Eternal compete with other distractions? We’ll see.
Last week I wrote a bit about how Marvel seem to be flooding the market with new comics, to the extent where it’s hard to keep up with new issue 1s, never mind the issue 2, 3 etc of all these series. With the movies and associated merchandise making so much more money than printed comics, you may wonder, as many people have, why Marvel bother with comics at all any more – why don’t Disney just slash and burn the publishing division to concentrate on films, toys, videogames and other things that turn much bigger profits?
On one level this might seem to make sense, as the films etc are mainly sourced from much older material. Leaving aside the most recent sequels like Winter Soldier and Iron Man Three, which explicitly draw from comics published in the last decade, the first Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films told the origins pretty straight, mainly recycling characters and plot concepts that date back to the dawn of Marvel. The Avengers was The Coming of the Avengers, the main plot inheritance from the more recent ‘movie-friendly’ Avengers revision The Ultimates being the alien invasion. In terms of synopses it’s hard to see why Marvel just don’t stick to drawing on a pile of ancient back issues.
It’s not like the comics have turned out many major entirely new characters in the last two to three decades of publication, instead concentrating on the old mainstays and ‘legacy heroes’, i.e. new characters taking on the superhero identity of an earlier hero.
This is however taking a shallow reading of how the characters transfer to the screen, to presume that, because most of the plot beats and the essence of the characters remain the same, that there is an effortless movement of characters from the works of Lee, Kirby and Ditko to the movies we see on screen. While it’s true that, at the core, these are the characters that Stan, Jack and Steve created, it would be a mistake to underestimate the cumulative effect that decades of publication have had in keeping these characters and concepts relevant to a modern audience, in trying out different stories and experimenting with different takes. It’s to take no credit away from the original creators to suggest that, without those years of continuous publication suggesting ways in which these characters might be accessible to cinema audiences, The Avengers might be closer in status to the THUNDER Agents – a curio familiar mainly to devotees of old comics – than the pop culture juggernaut they now are.
Before Marvel Studios came along and started more seriously mining recent comics for stories, this influence was mainly visual – Marvel would go to directors and producers considering, say, a Hulk film through Universal, and present a concept book of pages from recent Hulk comics. You can see this in the Ang Lee Hulk movie, with set pieces taken straight from the Ennis/McCrea Hulk Smash comic and slapped on the screen. That kind of influence still persists, with Iron Man Three drawing the imagery of Tony dragging his broken armour through the snow from the recent Most Wanted storyline while much of the story itself comes from other comics.
While it’s dispiriting to think of comics as just a dry run for ideas to be used in films and games and TV shows, it’s undeniable that they make a relatively cheap test bed for ideas compared to those media, and that the more realistic style of comic book art popularised in recent years creates images that are easier to adapt to the screen. It’s arguable that all the textures and details on Captain America’s costume in a John Cassaday or Bryan Hitch comic are unnecessary in the abstract world of a two dimensional comic, but they certainly provide suggestions to costume designers and producers of how such costumes might be adapted to real life actors. For all their iconic simplicity the costumes of golden and silver age comic book characters work because they exist in a world of sharp, clear lines not real people. An actor can’t look like a Jack Kirby drawing any more than a real person can embody the simple lines of Mario in Donkey Kong, as anyone who has seen the Bob Hoskins Super Mario Bros movie will know.
Now that the origins are out of the way, the Marvel Studios films are using the long history of the comics as a deeper well for characters and stories, with both Iron Man Three and The Winter Soldier drawing heavily on recent storylines while also throwing in characters from earlier eras, reinventing them in the process. Yes, screenwriters could come up with completely new storylines, and I’m sure sooner or later there’ll be a Marvel sequel that draws entirely from the cinematic universe, picking up threads from the films without drawing heavily on comic book material. But in a film industry hungry for ideas to get on screen, Marvel has the advantage of a publishing division that does nothing but churn out endless ideas for the new films, both in terms of stories and arresting visuals. While the comics remain profitable, there’s no reason why the publishing arm shouldn’t keep going, the comics readership acting as a paying focus group.
You can see Marvel leaning into this role with its recent launches and relaunches. Marvel Now and its successor, All-New Marvel Now, are throwing new ideas and visual approaches to a wall to see what sticks. A Moon Knight in a suit, easier to do on screen, in a more procedural type story that would work as a TV series? Silver Surfer as a Doctor Who-ish SF adventure? New spins on Black Widow? A new take on Ghost Rider that’s a step away from the Johnny Blaze version tainted by two Nic Cage movies? A Secret Avengers series that teams the more grounded characters from the Avengers movie up? All here.
There’s a lot of material there. As I said the other week, possibly too much – as the House to Astonish podcast pointed out, Marvel are heading towards having 53 monthly titles, one more than DC’s ungainly New 52. But there’s a certain creative freedom involved in feeding the machine, an encouragement to let the comics be as wild and comicky as they can be, to try new approaches, even if it’s with old IP. Nobody seems to be telling comics creators to make something that’ll be a good movie, but to try new things in the comics and let the movie/TV people work out what they want to cherry pick at a later date.
In some ways it’s an ideal meeting of commercial cynicism and creative storytelling, which is really what one would hope for from a company liked Marvel. Excelsior and all that.
Thanks to Aaron Smithies (@snarkandfury) and Ash (@Ravenevermore) on twitter for chats that led to this piece. Go follow!
A couple of these warm-up reviews have been about new Marvel comics that have been part of the company’s current wave of All-New Marvel Now issue 1s, All-New Ghost Rider (pictured) and Secret Avengers. But there are #1 issues I’ve bought and not got around to mentioning: Iron Patriot #1, for instance. And ones which predate me doing these reviews, like Loki: Agent of Asgard #1 and Winter Soldier: The Bitter March #1.
Then there’s Marvel series from the last year – and indeed the previous wave of Marvel Now – which I’m still reading, like Mighty Avengers which is only up to #8 and now seems old guard. Or series from that wave like Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Kieron Gillen’s Iron Man or Mark Waid’s Hulk that I’m trying to keep up with in trade as the single issues flood past.
Now a lot of these are very good, and a lot of Marvel Now/All-New Marvel Now launches are less good, but the one thing the lot of them have in common is that they constitute A LOT of comics. In some ways relaunching often is a good thing – a new #1 is a good try out, and it certainly works with me as the number of #1s I have picked up lately indicates. I like to try new things.
In fact, there are recent issue 1s that I never got around to – last week’s Silver Surfer #1, or Moon Knight #1 or Ms Marvel #1 from the last month or so, all of which just constituted one too many books on the pile for my limited budget. They’re coming so fast that the new #1s aren’t just competing with older books, they’re rolling over each other to an extent my wallet and, frankly, reading time, can’t keep up.
(I passed the ten minute mark here, but sod it, I can’t stop now.)
Lots of good comics are a good thing, but Marvel do have A LOT. And in the case of their bigger titles, they double ship them, so the comics come out 18 or 24 times a year and there’s a new ten, fifteen quid paperback collection out every few months for those of us reading in trade.
And I don’t just read Marvel. I read very little DC, but I keep up with a couple of titles and dabble in the odd one-shot or anthology that seems interesting. More significantly Image are churning out a ton of great new books, which I’m picking up either as singles or trades.
Now, what the competition does isn’t Marvel’s problem and it’s there job to take readers’ money that could be being spent on competitors’ books, but the churn is so relentless now it’s hard to see who could keep up with the new launches without at least dropping slightly older books before giving them a chance. Something has to give, so skip #9 of Mighty Avengers, #3 of Loki or a new #1, or just skip the lot, wait until the trades come out and buy them on the basis of the opinions of people who stuck the course over that first year?
I can’t be alone here, the sole person with limited budget – and I’m certainly far from austere with myself when it comes to buying comics – who is being left behind a bit. It’s hard not to see a currently successful policy of constant #1s becoming self-defeating very quickly – sales dropping off quicker and quicker as readers drop books that have reached the mature age of #5 or #6 in favour of the latest #1, which in turn drops off quicker and quicker… and so on.
Now, I tend to hate the constant fishing for comments with ‘what do you think?’ on news stories that readers almost certainly won’t have an insightful opinion on, but in this case, reader to other readers, I’d be genuinely interested to know – is it just me?
I find myself increasingly disinclined to bother discussing my opinions of Marvel Studios’ movies online. Like Doctor Who, these films are about characters and concepts so embedded into my psyche that conventional criticism, and certainly trying to argue the toss with people who don’t like them, seems a waste of time.
The chidish glee with which I responded to The Avengers, for instance, the absolute delight of watching those superheroes interact on screen, simultaneously defies both justification or refutation, and to be honest I tend to want to protect that simple feeling from the usual internet slanging matches.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier also holds further sentimental attachment by being based on one of my favourite superhero comic runs of the last decade or so, Ed Brubaker’s (along with Steve Epting and a lot of other artists) run on Cap.
Nevertheless I’m doing these warm up reviews so I’ll have a go, with only a couple of minutes to spare:
I’m not sure whether this is one of the best Marvel Studios movies – I think Iron Man 3 might edge it, and The Avengers itself remains top of the pile – but, at least partially for the reasons above, it’s one of my favourites. While crafting it’s own spin on the material it stays true to the feel of Brubaker’s comics, adding a twist of Jonathan Hickman’s sprawling conspiracies and transferring it to the screen as a superheroic take on the military conspiracy thriller.
The Russo Brothers bring a clean, sharp look to proceedings and aren’t afraid to draw in influences from the last few decades of this kind of film – a car chase through Washington DC has a pleasingly old school feel, and the presence of Robert Redford adds weight. Captain America stories often work best with a sense of history, and The Winter Soldier does that, making the film feel more substantial than an action movie rooted entirely in the now.
It’s also really, really entertaining, and The Winter Soldier himself is still very cool in terms of both concept and execution.
I rarely recommend comics purely on the basis of the art. While art is intrinsic to any comic, of course, and I’ve bought plenty of comics from my two or three favourite artists that didn’t have the most stellar script beneath the hood, usually I at least need to have a really strong story hook to carry me along, no matter how good the visual storytelling is.
Well, All-New Ghost Rider is a comic worth buying for the art alone. Tradd Moore has fused the motion lines and fluidity of manga with the digital sharpness and detail of a current big two title to create a comic that doesn’t look quite like anything else. While a lot of the current superstar artists turn out – Finch, Reis, Lee – turn out pages that are richly detailed snapshots, moments in time, Moore is all about motion, about speed of action, which is perfect for a comic about a demonic race driver. He’s able assisted by eye-popping colours from Nelson Daniel and Val Staples which create a neon drenched effect reminiscent of, but wilder than, the excesses of recent speed fuelled films and videogames.
So it’s worth a look because of the looks, which is not to say that All-New Ghost Rider has nothing going on in terms of script, just that it doesn’t get far into the story and doesn’t provide much of a plot hook to carry the reader on to the next issue. What writer Felipe Smith gives us here is an origin story with a lot of questions, which is pleasingly archetypal Marvel in its troubled protagonist with a heart of gold without feeling dated.
That troubled protagonist is Robbie Reyes, the new Ghost Rider by the end of the issue (in circumstances for now unexplained), and he’s stuck in the kind of predicament Peter Parker could relate to – he’s short of money, and has a bullied disabled younger brother to look after. He’s a good kid who, in wanting to elevate his family from a bad position makes an unwise decision, ‘borrowing’ a car from the garage he works in and driving it in an illegal street race, offering the stolen car as stakes in the hope of winning the cash he needs.
It’s a very clean start, and Robbie is sympathetic. Smith’s script clips along and Moore’s art then turbo charges it. It’s not flawless – aside from the slow pace, which builds character but delivers very little plot, younger brother Gabe is a cliched optimistic disabled mini-saint, cheery in the face of adversity and little more than a motivating device to drive Robbie. He’s as two-dimensionally good as Robbie’s boss is as flatly sleazy, both insubstantial characters who do nothing apart from nudge Robbie in the direction the plot requires.
It’s a beautiful book, then, but will need to gain depth as well as speed if it’s going to develop into a comic that’s as interesting as it is good looking.
OK, I’ve got a cold so this is going to be an even blurrier and less coherent ten minuter than usual.
The Fuse. the first two issues of which are out now from Image, is an SF police procedural comic set on a space station in the not terribly far future. Detective stories in fantasy or SF settings can be hard to do, as it can be difficult to rule any possibility out of the mystery if the rules of that imaginary world aren’t clear.
Writer Antony Johnston (Wasteland, lots of other things) solves this problem by presenting an utterly grounded future where we can be pretty certain from the off that teleports and psychic powers aren’t going to turn up.* The Fuse, a vast space station where humanity has colonised every open space between the working areas, feels like a real, practical place, with a society and problems that are its own but not unrelatable.
At the centre of the story are the two detectives, a white, slightly androgynous Russian woman who is the senior of the two and a black, German man who is a newbie to The Fuse. Although the latter, Dietrich, is our nominal viewpoint character both are intriguing and clearly have secrets, and their dynamic is vital to the appeal of the comic. Although Johnston has had this story in mind for long before the TV series The Bridge came along, there’s something of that show’s mismatched central partnership here, and a similar strong sense of place.
Justin Greenwood’s art is fantastic, with colours by Shari Chankhamma. The Fuse feels real and nuanced, and the characters are distinct and full of expression. You get where this fits on the genre spectrum with a glance at the page, which is vital for this kind of story.
In a golden age of Image launches this is one of the strongest.
* This is not a guarantee, so don’t complain to me if an esper teleports in on page 2 of #3.
I’ve read a good few issues of previous incarnations of Secret Avengers, and while some of those were fun it has always seemed like one of those Avengers books that only exists because ‘Secret’ is a cool word to append to the mother franchise.
The broad intent with the varied incarnations of the title has been to make it the espionage/black-ops Avengers team, a concept that recurs all the time in superhero comics even though ‘superhero black-ops team’ is a TERRIBLE idea because there’s no real room in a supehero universe for head-murdering people because, goddammit, it needs to be done.
(I don’t think there’s any reason in the real world, either, but that’s another story.)
This new incarnation of the book is written by Ales Kot, writer/creator of the superlative Image superspy book Zero, and drawn by Michael Walsh, a superstar artist in the making who has done great work on IDW’s X-Files comic as well as drawing the first issue of Zero. You might reasonably expect this Secret Avengers to be a Marvel U version of Zero – bleak, political, harshly violent.
Instead, Secret Avengers #1 is a far nimbler beast that squares the superhero/espionage circle, making the two elements gel better than I’ve ever seen before. Rather than diving into the murky, frowny end of the espionage genre and trying to impose a faux ‘realism’ on the Marvel U, Kot and Walsh emphasise the SUPER in superspy, with a cleanness and craziness that owes more to the wilder Moore Bonds and Man from UNCLE than Le Carre. It’s a fun concoction that blends beautifully with the Marvel universe at its broadest and most fun – AIM agents, space stations, some popular cybernetic villains in interesting plot roles.
It’s bright, poppy and smart, with the smudgy likeability of Hawkeye – Clint here is straight out of the Fraction/Aja book, and some of the tropes of that title are pleasingly played with – and some clever character subversions. An attempt by two characters to out-poetry-quote each other is sheer joy.
Kot and Walsh are talents to watch, and they’ve made Secret Avengers WORK at last. Great work all round, and one of the best All New Marvel Now books I’ve read.
Most of them were rubbish, utter garbage. A couple were good. Only one was *really* good.
That was the first issue of Martin Stiff’s ‘The Absence’, then a self-published mini-series. Now Titan Books have collected the whole six part series as a lovely, not too-expensive over-sized hardcover, and I highly recommend it.
‘The Absence’ sees Marwood Clay, a Second World War veteran with hideous facial scarring (see cover image) returning to his home village, which is not keen on his return. The village is scarred not just by the loss of young men through the war, or the traumatic events that led to Marwood’s departure, but a deeper malaise – people are leaving, disappearing in the night. Are they just fleeing this miserable dump, or is something more sinister or supernatural going on?
Marwood’s return is paralleled by the arrival of a newcomer, a wealthy scientist determined to build a mysterious ‘house’ in the village, and the stories of these two outsiders – the outcast and the incomer – entwine as the two collaborate and conflict while trying to solve the village’s mysteries.
This is a great book, an intriguing mystery with involving characters that has fringe, fantasy-tinged elements but never descends into a supernatural pot boiler. Stiff writes well, and writes better as the book goes on, and his black and white line art has a scratchiness that melds reality and cartooning in the best Eddie-Campbell-esque way.
‘The Absence’ kept me guessing as to what was going on, and how it would end, all the way through, without ever cheating the reader. Mysterious small towns, from Night Vale to Sleepy Hollow, are big right now, and this is a bracing British equivalent to those American locations. Go get it.
* I’m going to try and write a review or blog post a day as a warm-up exercise. You can probably guess the time limit I’m setting myself.