Monday, July 13, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/8

We're going to start off this week with Dan Grote's return to regular reviews, looking at what might be this year's most anticipated reboot...

Archie #1
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Fiona Staples

Fictional teenagers are one of America’s most precious commodities. They are fonts of potential yet somehow more self-actualized than real teenagers. They embody American ideals of physical perfection that put to shame the real thing, which is just a walking bag of hormones programmed to make bad decisions unless its parents tightly control every waking moment of its existence, which generally only backfires anyway. They provide an illusion of hope and order in a time of wanton id.

That’s why shows like Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills 90210 and The O.C. maintain a place in the cultural conversation years past their expiration. And it’s why Archie will never go away.

The Archie Andrews of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ reboot is still the wholesome face of fictional-American teenage life. Perhaps even moreso than the pre-2015 Archie, as he lives in a version of Riverdale where raven-haired part-time lover Veronica Lodge hasn’t even moved to town yet. There’s only ever been one woman in his life – Betty Cooper – and they just broke up. Why? Well, there was something called “the lipstick incident,” but no one will explain what that is – no matter how much food you bribe Jughead with – and all parties agree it’s none of your business.

But because Riverdale High School works on Saved by the Bell logic – Archie talks to camera, there’s an inordinate number of school dances, and life seems to revolve around a core group of kids (God, I wish Jughead had a robot named Kevin) – the students of Riverdale feel it’s their mission to reunite Archie and Betty.

If there’s a lesson to this first issue of Archie, it’s butt out. It’s nobody’s business why Archie and Betty broke up, even in a book where Archie talks directly to the reader. It’s obviously complicated, and the fact that Archie and Betty still speak highly of each other and respect each other as friends and former significant others (“I wish everybody would stop looking for a villain in this,” Betty says at one point) speaks volumes to the quality of their character and to the strength of Mark Waid’s writing.

Waid appears to be at a stage in his career where he can do no wrong. His run on Daredevil was a phenomenal mix of character-driven plot, lighthearted superheroics and occasional detours into horror. This fall, he’ll be taking over the most diverse team of Avengers yet, including Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) and Nova (Sam Alexander).

And I want to live in a world drawn by Fiona Staples. I’ve been in awe of her work on Image’s Saga, the way she can take even the most grotesque concepts – a ghost with its guts hanging out the bottom, a contract killer with a spider’s lower half and thin red slits for eyes, a robot with a retro-futuristic TV set for a head – and make them all beautiful in their own way. And now she’s drawing normal American teenagers! Normal clothing with sags and creases and unironed collars! All races and body types! Even Archie’s dad, playing guitar on the couch in a sweatshirt, khakis and Gold Toe socks, looks like the best version of a balding, paunchy, American dad in his mid to late 40s.

Also shining this issue is Jughead, who though given a reputation for being dimwitted and food-obsessed over the years proves smarter than all the other gossipmongers at Riverdale trying to steer the course of the good ship Bettchie (the portmanteau for Betty and Archie). An ad at the back teases a Jughead solo series this fall written by Chip Zdarsky (Image’s Sex Criminals) and Erica Henderson (Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). Sounds like another can’t-miss book.

Full disclosure: I never gave a rat’s ass about Archie prior to this reboot. I respected Afterlife with Archie, in which zombies come to Riverdale, but mostly because I love Francesco Francavilla’s covers. I am fully sold on Archie 2.0. Come join me on the bandwagon; the seating is very comfy.

And now on to my reviews of this week's highlights...

Batman #42
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, & FCO Plascencia

Jim Gordon's tenure as Batman sure doesn't look like it's going to be getting any easier. In the same way the first issue of this new direction Batman spent time flashing between Batman's fight with a new foe and his decision to become Batman, this issue starts with Jim training before going out, and in the middle of this month's fight flashes to a scene with him and Maggie Sawyer, before returning to him training after the fight. The symmetry if the opening and closing work really well, but it's the middle sequence that really grabbed my attention. Firstly, Greg Capullo draws new commissioner Maggie Sawyer differently than I've seen her drawn before. She's slimmer, with a very thinner face, and I really like it. But in the discussion, we see the first hints of a rift between the GCPD and the new Batman. Sawyer pretty clearly doesn't view Gordon as a cop anymore, but as something cop adjacent, and has no problem pointing out that while he can get the collar, it's the GCPD's place to do that actual legwork. I can't recall how much Maggie's background has changed in the new continuity, but there's a logic to this if it's still pretty much the same. Maggie started out in Metropolis before coming to Gotham, and while she might respect Gordon, she doesn't have the same hero worship that many GCPD officer's like Bullock and Montoya would have for him. It's also an interesting inversion of the Batman/Gordon relationship, where Gordon would privately support Batman while publicly have to disavow any cooperation, while here Maggie has to publicly be gung ho for the new Batman while privately not trusting the program. The main thrust of the issue if Gordon fighting a new villain, Gee Gee Heung, a Triad leader who has been given powers; he's basically Magneto but with silica based things and not metals. This lets Capullo run wild, drawing an incredible fight sequence. Streets and brick buildings become his weapons, become horizontal columns of death, and a giant brick traditional Batman-monster throws down with the armored Gordon. There's a lot of other stuff to like, including the hints of the new big bad, Mr. Bloom and his seeds that grant powers, Jim Gordon proving he's still a detective by deducing Julia "Perry's" previous relationship with Batman, and the opening of the two Batman action figures that also comes back around at the very end as the kids in a shelter discuss who is really Batman, a discussion I'm sure Snyder predicted would be happening in comic stores everywhere.

And it's the shelter that has the big reveal of the issue. As interesting as Mr. Bloom's scheme is, it's the final pages, with a bearded Bruce Wayne working in a shelter with Julie Madison, that has garnered the most attention. Snyder actually seeded Julie at the end of "Zero Year" so it's a good opportunity to pay off that cameo. And there are a lot of questions left here. How did  Bruce escape the Batcave? Does he remember his past? Has he retired? I'll be honest. I am one of the few people who liked the end of The Dark Knight Rises, the fact that Bruce got to retire and move on with his life. But I know this is comics and that will never happen, because these are endless, ouroboros stories. But it's an interesting choice to have, as Snyder said in an interview, "Batman die and Bruce Wayne come back," and I think there's story potential in any of the eventualities, whether it's a choice or amnesia of some kind. Keeping Bruce's presence in the book also  makes the tension different. There's none of the looking for Batman that was tied in with Grant Morrison's death of Batman. No where, just how and when he will return, and Snyder hasn't let me down yet, so I'm in for the ride.

Princeless: Raven- The Pirate Princess #1
Story: Jeremy Whitley
Art: Rosy Higgins & Tod Brandt

The fourth volume of Princeless is in full swing, and with four successful mini-series under his belt, creator Jeremy Whitley, along with the art team from the third mini-series, get the band back together for this spin off featuring that volume's break out character, Raven Xingtao, known as The Black Arrow, the pirate princess. Raven is the heir to the pirate king, whose twin brothers locked her in a tower to claim her inheritance for their own, and after retaking one of the ships that is rightfully hers (granted without its crew) with the help of Adrienne, Princeless's protagonist, at the end of the third volume of Princeless, Raven finds herself in need of a crew and food, so she stops at a city that is populated by pirates and goes out to get a bite. But being this is, to quote a phrase, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, it's not long before she is taken in by a pick pocket con artist, and the chase is one. Rosy Higgins draws a fabulous chase sequence, as Raven and the pick pocket cut through buildings, over roofs, and even go through a stall or two, leading to a hilarious nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Higgins fight scenes are some of my favorites in recent memory, with a fluidity to her characters that makes the fights seem almost like dances. And when Raven and Sunshine, the pick pocket, get into a fight with a band of toughs led by a guy called Melancholy Johnny, and there's an unimpressive street name if I ever heard one, they start working together seamlessly, which is a clear set up of them working together in the future, and possibly keeping the romantic tension from Sunshine's distracting kiss. And yes they're both female and this is an all ages book. I think it's cool how little this is played up, no more than if it was a female pickpocket kissing a male hero to distract him. How far we've come as a fan community. The issue ends with Sunshine leading Raven to her place of employment and not getting the result she anticipated, with the introduction of a character who has a past with Raven and isn't trying to kill her, which is a change. Princeless is still one of the top all ages books on the market, full of character, action, and a rollicking adventure plot, and it feels like The Pirate Princess is right in line with that.

Saga #30
Art: Fiona Staples
Story: Brian K. Vaughan

The end of the past few arcs of Saga have pulled away from Marko and Alana, to focus on supporting characters, but this issue is a different beast. As our protagonists have been separated for the length of this story, this is an issue about relationships and about coming together. As Marko makes his way to find his wife and daughter, Alana fights her way out of the Revolution's ship, only to find that Hazel is still inside it with Klara, her grandmother. OK, so if you're reading Saga in trade, here we go with the SPOILER ALERT. The important character beats of the issue show exactly where Marko and Alana are with Hazel gone. Reunited, the stand with Dengo, the robot who kidnapped their daughter, on his knees and vulnerable, but they decide not to kill him. The choice between taking a life or not, between violence and peace, has been central to this title, and one violent act by Marko is what drove them apart some time ago. By choosing the peaceful way, by choosing not to act, the two are drawn together again, and Hazel's narration points out that couple change together or they break up, and it's clear this time apart has gotten our leads to grow into more complimentary people. That's not say Dengo lives. Because Robot IV is still there, and he wants his son back and revenge for that kidnapping, and we see some true tenderness Robot has for his son when he holds him. The opposite of that tenderness is when The Will awakes to find Gwen, Sophie, and Lying Cat waiting for him, only to find out about what it took to heal him. I'd love to see some flashbacks to The Will and The Brand as kids, so we could get a better feel for the roots of their tight familial bond. Dan talked about Fiona Staples's amazing art on Archie above, and I just want to echo it here. the splash of Marko and Alana's reunion might be one of my favorite pages in all of Saga, just so completely full of emotion. And now we enter Saga hiatus again, time for those who trade wait to catch up, and those of us reading in singles to hibernate and wait for the next new issue. Hopefully, I won't go crazy with the wait

Star Wars: Jedi Academy- The Phantom Bully
Story & Art: Jeffrey Brown

I wrote a recommended reading on the Star Wars books of Jeffrey Brown last year, and this past week saw the release of the final volume of his Jedi Academy series, an all ages series that mixes diary entries and comics (ala Diary of a Wimpy Kid) about Padawan Roan Novachez's last year at Jedi Academy middle school. Roan is your typical teen/tween protagonist: good hearted, kind of clumsy, unsure of himself. But this third year looks like it will be great for him. He's learning to be a pilot finally, he's got a good group of friends, and he has a girlfriend, Giana, the smartest girl in school. But his new Jedi Advisor is Mr. Garfield, the monosyllabic Zabrak, who Roan is sure is out to get him. And Cronah, his old bully, is still definitely out to get him. Throughout the book, there's a mix of tween pathos and good lessons for the young ones who will read it about friendship and confidence building (heck, maybe an adult can use that too here or there). We see Roan constantly set upon by Cronah, although Roan can never prove the pranks are Cronah, and he makes it through withe the help of Pasha, his best friend, and Giana, as well as other Padawans. Since it's set a few hundred years before Star Wars continuity as we know it, Yoda is there, as inscrutable and backwards talking as ever. This might be the last book to feature some of the string ties to the EU, which Brown puts in without making someone feel like they're being inundated with Star Wars minutiae, but are fun for those of us in the know. I was also impressed in how he handled Cronah and Cyrus, who were the bully duo in previous volumes. Cyrus reforms throughout this book, clearly trying to be a better guy after he got into serous trouble in the last volume, but Roan isn't fast to trust him, and at the end of the volume, we learn why Cronah has been targeting Roan all along, and it's a really interesting, really human reveal. If you're a Star Wars fan with kids this is a delightful book to share with them, or just a fan who enjoys a fun, light read, The Jedi Academy series is a perfect afternoon's diversion.

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