Monday, March 21, 2016

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/16

This week' we'll be starting off with Dan Grote's review of the first issue of the new series starring everyone's favorite drunken immortal and naive assassin, Archer and Armstrong. Welcome to the Valiant fold, my friend...

A&A: The Adventures of Archer and Armstrong #1
Story by Rafer Roberts
Art by David LaFuente, Ryan Winn and Brian Reber

Sometimes you pick up a comic and you wonder why you waited so long to make it a part of your life.

Matt’s written pretty consistently about Archer and Armstrong, always making it a point to note the book’s humor. As somebody whose favorite comics include Deadpool and Chew, it’s always sounded right up my alley yet somehow just out of reach. Fortunately, this relaunch is extremely new-reader friendly.

There’s not much you need to know going in. Armstrong, aka Aram Anni-Padda, is a millennia-old, bear-sized immortal with a hunger for adventure and a thirst for booze. Obadiah Archer is a teenager trained from birth in every form of combat but is so pure of heart that he substitutes swearing for phrases like “mumble-fudgers” and “Son of a lady dog!” And his sister, Mary-Maria, leads a cult of ninja nuns and is mostly evil.

Pretty darned accessible for characters that have been around since 1992.

In this latest iteration of the title, Armstrong has gotten himself stuck in his bottomless satchel (think Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, but cooler) trying to retrieve a bottle of 1907 Lagavulin whiskey he stole from some Mafia guys in 1953. Because the satchel is left open (Armstrong is tethered to the bed in his motel room by a length of rope), the monsters that dwell inside are free to escape. Archer, who was out making a vending machine run, returns to the room to subdue the monsters and make them watch Maury Povich. He then has the plot explained to him by another creature that escaped the bag, a talking mackerel named Davey who dresses like an old gumshoe.

(It was about this point I decided I was on board.)

Archer dives into the satchel to find his partner, but not before begging Mary-Maria to watch the bag, and not steal it.

Inside the satchel is a giant library out of an M.C. Escher painting, run by goblins of indeterminate gender. Deeper inside is Bacchus, the half-human, half-goat god of wine and merriment, whom Armstrong apparently stuck in the bag thousands of years ago but doesn’t remember, much to Bacchus’ disappointment.

“Whatever, I don’t care. It’s not like I’ve been planning this moment for 3,000 years or anything,” he says when he confronts a reunited Archer and Armstrong.

Nevertheless, he sets his trash golems upon the pair, who now must rely on Mary-Maria to save them. Except she’s already decided to cut the rope and steal the satchel, so whoopsadoodle on trusting her.

The book opens with a flashback showing Armstrong and an old friend punching Mafioso and stealing the plot-driving booze. Mission accomplished, the two rest a spell on a park bench and toast to a job well done.

“Here’s to the successful end of another stupid and poorly planned adventure,” Armstrong says. May all A&A’s adventures be this stupid and poorly planned.

Clean Room #6
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Jon Davis-Hunt & Quinton Winter

I've enjoyed a lot of the recent Vertigo launches, but of them,Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt's Clean Room has been the strongest. This issue, the final part of the first arc, gives us some answers... and asks a whole bunch of questions based on those answers. The past couple issue's plot of Astrid Mueller, self hope guru and knower of mysteries, trapped in a locked room with one of the demons may have ended last issue, but this issue places out series's main character, journalist in just as tenuous a place. The demon, Spark, who possessed one of her neighbors gives Chloe an insight into the suicide of her fiancee, the thing that set her on the quest to find out about Mueller and her cult, but then it... tries to save her from another demon-possessed man, this one called The Surgeon, and when Mueller finds out, she does everything  she can to save Chloe, including revealing her secret plans. We find out what Mueller was doing with the strange Dr. Hagen from a couple issues back, and while I remembered Hagen the minute he was mentioned, I hadn't thought about him since the one scene that introduced him. Simone is a clever writer who knows how to seed hints and backstory so that when it becomes relevant, the reader slaps their forehead and smiles because it all makes sense now. But even with these answers, there are now more questions: are there factions in these possessing creatures? What exactly is their physical home? How did Astird find out about Chloe's ability to communicate with the dead? And what does The Surgeon's final cryptic line mean? The balance between mystery and reveal is hard to keep in a suspense/horror comic, but Simone has it down pat. But on top of this, the emotional life of Chloe is so rich, and her reactions left me feeling deeply for her. And Astrid Mueller remains a mystery to me; even though we got some insight into what she's doing, and why, she moves from reacting with what seems like passion to cold calculation so quickly I'm still not sure how much Chloe, and the reader, can trust her. And Jon Davis-Hunt's art is some of the top notch creepiest I've seen in a while. His distorted, monstrous faces of the possessed make your skin crawl because they balance what should be with what most assuredly not. Clean Room is a great horror comic, and one I'm glad is published by Vertigo: Vertigo started as a horror imprint, after all, and Clean Room belongs in the long line of skin crawling horror that traces back to Sandman and Hellblazer.

Kanan #12
Story: Greg Weisman
Art: Andrea Broccardo & David Curiel

A year's worth of origins story comes to a conclusion in the final issue of Marvel's Star Wars: Rebels tie-in series, Kanan. The animated series has been a great success, getting better with each episode, and this series has been enjoyable; telling the stories of how Jedi Padawam Caleb Dume became rogue Kanan Jarrus feels like the book that embodies the transition from The Clone Wars to Rebels. This issue, set entirely in the present of the series, meaning during the Rebellion era, wraps up all the threads from the series, bringing in the characters that Caleb met as a Padawan and that he met when he first changed his name to Kanan to hide from the Empire, and now having them meet Kanan as an adult, and a master in his own right. Much of the issue has Kanan and his Padawan, Ezra going to save one of those long ago friends. The issue also has a cameo from one of the animated series big bads and features an appearance from an Imperial character from the first new continuity novel, A New Dawn, which was the story of how Kanan met Hera, another of the leads of Rebels. I've always liked when the comics and the novels tie together nicely, and with the new Lucasfilm Story Group overseeing all other media to make one streamlined continuity, I've been hoping for this kind of tight tie-in before, and it's the first time I've seen that kind of tie-in. But most important the little one off issue gives you everything that is good in a Star Wars story: action, aliens, strange worlds, Stormtroopers, and Jedi. I like that even thought this features characters introduced over eleven issues and a novel, the issue stands alone, making an exciting Star Wars adventure.

Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems #1
Story: Josceline Fenton
Art: Chrystin Garland & Leigh Luna

I came late to the Steven Universe party; I only started watching the series a few months ago, deep into the animated series' second season, but fell quickly in love with the deep characterization and the message at the heart of the series, that love is universal and that it brings us together and makes us better than we are alone. And so a new mini-series featuring Steven and his fellow Crystal Gems seemed like a good issue to pick up. For those who don't know the show, Steven Universe is an eternally optimistic half human/half alien boy who spends his time having adventures with the Crystal Gems, aliens who served with his mother to defend Earth from their homeworld that planned to conquer it: confident Garnet, fussy Pearl, and prankster Amethyst. One word adjective descriptors don't do any of these characters justice, as they are all remarkably deep characters. One of the things that makes the series fun is that the Gems, despite being thousands of years old, don't really get the whole human thing, and Steven often tries to explain these things to them, things like birthdays and slumber parties. This mini-series starts with Steven having another of these adventures, this time taking the Gems on a camping trip. The fish out of water aspect as the Gems try to do normal camping things makes for great comedy: Pearl (my favorite character on the show) putting up a tent to be aesthetically pleasing and using all the parts, not realizing there were instructions to make it functional, is the kind of thing that makes for great comedy. The centerpiece of the issue is the highlight of a camping trip for Steven, the telling of scary stories around the fire. Steven's story, a riff on the classic "The call's coming from inside the house!" urban legend falls flat as the Gems overthink the scare. But then Pearl decides to tell the story she and Garnet used to keep Amethyst, the youngest gem, from wandering off when she was younger, the story of the Glass Ghost. The scary stories are colored differently from the main story, and differently from each other, and the muted color palette helps give them a spooky vibe. The issue is well structured, mixing it's scares with its jokes, and a moment with Steven finding broken glass when he went to look for firewood means the story of the Glass Ghost is obviously going to be tied into the real world; I don't think it's a real spoiler to reveal Steven sees a Glass Ghost at issue's end, and it's design is phenomenal. Chrystin Garland perfectly captures the characters looks and designs, and the art is as vibrant as the animation on the cartoon. Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems #1 is a great issue for fans of the cartoon, but works just as well as an introduction to Steven and his friends.

Wrath of the Eternal Warrior #5
Story: Robert Venditti
Art: Juan Jose Ryp & Jordie Bellaire

The first arc of Wrath of the Eternal Warrior took place in the afterlife, and followed Gilad Anni-Padda (younger brother of Armstrong from Archer and Armstrong. Of course, younger is a relative term when they're both over six thousand years old) as he left the paradise where the family he has built over his long life dwells on his quest back to life. This issue is actually a flashback to a time millenia ago, in ancient Mesopotamia. One of the great things about having a long lived protagonist is that you can do this kind of story, a tale of their past that illuminates something about what they are currently going through or will go through soon. Gilad is out hunting when a raiding party finds the village that he is living in and massacres everyone and takes his son. Upon returning home, he finds the wreck of the village and goes to hunt down those who perpetrated the atrocity. During the hunt, the panels have three color schemes: full color for the present of Gilad's hunt, yellow for what he's able to determine of those who killed Janna, his wife, and took Kalam, his son, and red for flashbacks to Gilad and Janna during the time that led up to this. It makes what happened all the more tragic as you understand the choices that Gilad made to lead to having a child with a woman he knew he would outlive, a child he knew he would also outlive. Gilad is the fist and steel of Earth, the guardian of the planet and the Geomancers, the world's guardians, and so it's not often that he is presented as emotional. This series has been building a fuller, more three dimensional Gilad, a tragic hero; here we see Gilad make a decision that there might be more than just that life for him, and we see what comes of it. It's cool to watch him use his skills as a tracker and hunter to find his way to the city of the men who took Kalam, a character we saw in the afterlife, and I think we'll learn more of why Kalam resented Gilad in that world. The art on this issue is decidedly different from the previous arc; Juan Jose Ryp made his bones working with Warren Ellis over at Avatar Press, and his style is informed by those origins: his art is hyper detailed and he draws carnage like few others. His Gilad is a muscled barbarian, befitting the time and setting, and the look on his face as he sees what has been done to those he loves and the cold determination to save his son and revenge himself are chilling. I'm looking forward to see what Gilad does next issue, and I hope that these flashback stories with different artists become a staple of this title. Gilad was my favorite character from the classic Valiant universe, and every issue of this series makes me glad to see him get the series he has deserved since his reintroduction.

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