Batman, Hellboy, and Free Country – Top 10 Comics of September 2015

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Between our Top 10 Monthly comic round-ups and the Comics Collection series we ran in 2014, The Escapist has been covering the latest books for well over a year. And it’s still not getting old – there’s always something amazing to sink your teeth into. Perhaps you enjoy re-released Vertigo classics like Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade. Maybe you prefer the latest indie books like Bitch Planet or Providence. Or you could just simply like Batman. That’s great! Whatever your preference, you’ll absolutely find something to love.

So once again we’re arrived to break down 10 favorites enjoyed by myself and Escapist editor Jon Bolding. But first, let’s start with a little 90s collection/remastering called:

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Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade

Vertigo Comics was never really known for crossovers – even today, readers prefer to imagine Sandman and Hellblazer in a distinct universe with no affiliations to pesky superheroes. But in the 90s, DC’s mature comics line gave the whole crossover event a shot. The result was The Children’s Crusade, which united characters from Sandman, The Books of Magic, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Black Orchid, and Swamp Thing into a single story.

But apparently, crossovers are really hard to get right. Neil Gaiman compared the experience to “herding cats”, and its writers struggled to craft a story without being clear what other contributors were bringing to the table. So for the collected edition, Vertigo Comics tried something different: Take Neil Gaiman’s opening chapter, Jamie Delano and Alisa Kwitney’s finale, and replace everything in-between with new content. So finally, we can Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade as a complete story instead of disjointed individual parts.

When every child from a small English village disappears without a trace, Sandman‘s Dead Boy Detectives are hired to uncover what happened. Their investigation reveals Free Country, a magical dimension where abused children find shelter and safety, never age, and live in peace for eternity. But now a faction within Free Country wants to “save” all the world’s children, which means luring in five powerful youths from Vertigo Comics’ various series.

Free Country isn’t as perfect a crossover event as you’d hope – some characters like Swamp Thing‘s Tefé or Doom Patrol‘s Dorothy barely get any attention at all. But the benefits of having this story in a truly complete form shouldn’t be understated. Reading it feels like being a child again, with the same sense of magic, innocence, and fear of monstrous evil that most of us experienced growing up. Not to mention seeing Tim Hunter and the Dead Boy Detectives again is a perfect reminder of why Vertigo was beloved by 90s-era comics readers.

And I say that as someone who didn’t read The Children’s Crusade the first time around – returning fans will likely experience an intense nostalgia rush. Whatever the reason, if you’re a Vertigo reader, Free Country deserves a place in your library.

Favorite Moment: The Free Country council meeting Tim Hunter.

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Providence #4

My favorite HP Lovecraft story is The Dunwich Horror, partly because of how it mirrors cosmic and human fears. Cthulhu’s terror may be outside human understanding, but the Dunwich monster is literally a family secret. It’s born from abuse and hated, violently attacking a world that can’t see it in plain sight. This is the most relatable creature Lovecraft ever devised, and easily one of the most memorable of his career.

So now you might understand how exciting – and terrifying – it is that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows finally visited “Dunwich” in Providence‘s Salem. Following the occult trail across the United States, Robert Black meets an ostracized philosopher living near a secluded swamp. During their chat, Black also encounters a mentally-disturbed albino daughter, and an abnormally large grandchild who barely fits into his jacket. (Did he say he was sixteen, or six?) But the greatest danger is what Black can’t see – “Divine John”, an unmentionable son who really should be moved into the attic before he gets any bigger.

This is, hands-down, the best Providence issue so far. Every page drips with atmosphere, hiding double-meanings that are just a little too disturbing when you think about them. In fact, the entire story operates on multiple levels – if you’ve never read Lovecraft, you’ll grasp the exact surface level understanding Black does. But if you know The Dunwich Horror? You’ll see the horrifying big picture, and grasp how insanely close to death Black is at every moment.

Until now, that dynamic (and Black’s cluelessness) was almost funny. Here it’s downright chilling. If you were on the fence after Issue 1, keep going – you won’t be disappointed.

Favorite Moment: The photograph of the boys.

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Joker: Endgame

Superheroes never die in comics. But nobody takes that trope to the complete extreme like Batman. In the past 30 years, he’s been through four literal and metaphorical “death and resurrection” stories (three in his own books, one in Justice League). It’s so frequent, no one was surprised when it happened in Endgame, or had any doubt he’d be back one day. I mean, it hasn’t even been a decade since Batman R.I.P., and now this? Why are we doing this again?

Simple: Endgame is really, really good. Killing Batman is like professional wrestling – we know the game is rigged, but it’s kind of thrilling to follow anyway. And in terms of execution, Endgame might be one of the best “Death of Batman” stories yet.

It has a massive threat to Gotham only Batman can stop. It features a final showdown with the Joker – his actual nemesis, not Bane or Black Glove. It pushes Batman to extreme limits, but never lets him give up hope. He even fights Superman – hell, the entire Justice League – without feeling like a copy of The Dark Knight Returns.

Even after reading Alfred’s touching last words, knowing he’ll be back, I closed the book thinking this was a fitting end to Batman’s story. Considering how many endings Batman gets, that’s really saying something.

There are two Endgame collections to choose from: Batman: Endgame contains the core storyline, while Joker: Endgame throws in extra chapters for a few dollars more. Everything that worked with Endgame plus some extra issues? Seems like a pretty easy choice to me.

Favorite Moment: Joker unmasking Batman.

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We Stand On Guard #3

Well, this series got serious pretty quickly.

Stew Shearer and I both love We Stand On Guard for similar reasons – giant robots and futuristic sci-fi battles. But Brian K Vaughn is also using this platform to explore what wars might look like in the next 200 years, and this month, that means exploring torture. Futuristic Orwellian torture that makes 1984 look like a mild spanking.

Last issue, America successfully captured the leader of the Two-Four and sent alive her to interrogation. This time, we quickly realize why she wanted to die – torture technology has advanced to include virtual reality and brain stimulation techniques. In We Stand On Guard‘s future you can brutally torture someone in VR sims, have them feel all the pain, and they won’t die or suffer permanent damage.

That has deeply unsettling implications for VR technologies we’re in such a rush to develop right now. I mean, suppose you could excessively torture someone without the torture ever being “real”. Why wouldn’t governments legalize it? And why wouldn’t scientists create VR programs with scenarios ranging from the physical to the psychological? That seriously ups the ante from Clockwork Orange holding someone’s eyes open while looking at a TV screen.

Now a rescue mission is on the way, so we’ll absolutely get back to robot action soon enough. But there’s some pretty serious food for thought here you won’t likely forget anytime soon.

Favorite Moment: The giant robot on Page 1. Why, yes I am very easy to please.

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Invader Zim #3

Invader Zim wasn’t just a show filled with one-liners, it had a surprisingly twisted world view. Jhonen Vasquez managed to insert several subversive parodies of our modern world into this children’s show, lampooning consumer culture, conspiracy theorists, and public school systems. True to form, the Invader Zim comic is continuing that tradition, taking aim at none other than……… modern art criticism.

When Zim discovers ancient technology that can summon an ancient, all-powerful being called the Star Donkey, he realizes its potential for conquering Earth. But how can he stop Dib from foiling his plan? Simple: Treat the technology as an art exhibit. When Dib arrives to save the world, suddenly his actions are considered negative criticism that won’t be tolerated – a policy enforced by flying killer robots. (Although I’ll admit, modern art is vastly improved with flying killer robots.)

If Invader Zim‘s third issue was a TV episode, it would be a filler for passing the time between core chapters. It’s not about crafting a grand plotlines, but creating amusing scenarios to extend a season. But Invader Zim did filler episodes so well that many fans remember them fondly. (See: Zim getting lost in the city, Zim and Dib’s water balloon fight, and “A Room With A Moose”.) This comic is picking plotlines up like the show never ended – and I, for one, and increasingly happy with the results.

Favorite Moment: “What if you guarded… this pen instead?”

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The Dying and the Dead #3

Last we checked, The Dying and the Dead‘s aging heroes were on a last-ditched effort to retrieve artifacts for some unknown mission. We still had no idea who the mysterious “People” were, what their relationship with humanity was, and why they were seemingly gifted with immortality. Now after the long wait, not only is The Dying and the Dead back, it has the answers readers of the first two issues sorely craved.

Issue 3 is a condensed history of humanity from 32,000 BC to the 20th Century, described over a dinner conversation between Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito in 1944. In The Dying and the Dead‘s universe, humanity alternated between warring with or being enslaved by the People, until a civil war prompted them to lose control over our population. World War II was simply one aspect of this long-running conflict, one the Axis intended to be the final chapter. But a last-minute twist dashes those plans, revealing what happened to those artifacts – and why the People want them back.

Part of me almost wishes these details were kept secret just a little longer, but the new context makes it worthwhile to re-read earlier issues. For example, is that our hero from the first two issues dressed as a German soldier? That certainly explains how he knows where the artifacts are located in modern day. More importantly, it explains the intentions of the modern Axis forces from Issue 1, and sets up a race to retrieve what’s left.

The downside? While Jonathan Hickman apologizes for the delays, regular releases won’t resume until 2016. That’s going to be a hard wait… but one I’m looking forward to seeing end.

Favorite Moment: “This world has a long history of monsters. We are not that special.”

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Hellboy in Hell #8

What can I say? This series just keeps delivering, and delivering, and promising. It gives answers and secrets with one hand and takes them away with another. The hand that takes the secrets away is Hellboy’s, which keeps murdering the other denizens of hell. The art in these books continues to have some of the most incredible choices: huge empty spaces, frenetic action scenes, and detailed tableaus all find proper homes here. The storytelling here is a bit predictable, but I can forgive it that because of its dedication to consistent twists. It’s the second bit of a two-parter, which lends it a bit of extra story weight, but in the end leaves more interesting questions than it answers – which is just about precisely what I want from a Hellboy experience.

Favorite Moment: An exploratory, revealing flashback that bleeds into the present.

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Bitch Planet #5

This series explodes out of four issues of world building with a round of literal blood sports. Hell yes. While my confidence that the dedicated storytelling Kelly Sue DeConnick was doing had started to waver, I think this was the invigorating shot of adrenaline the story needed. As always, the sexploitation era art and references do wonders with the overblown social commentary in the writing. While I don’t always love the composition in the comic – I can’t say I have the most refined sense of whose point of view every panel is from, for example – it’s undeniable that the art is willing to break out of form and try new things. This issue made me stick with a comic for at least another five, and that’s a winner to me.

Favorite Moment: “Are we really gonna go back home?”
“Probably not.”

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Tokyo Ghost #1

Weird Rick Remender storylines and lovely post-apocalyptic art drew me into this one – which I actually picked up right off the shelf. I’ve been longing for a sci-fi series to go alongside Saga for a while now, and this is the one I’m picking for the foreseeable future. When I found out it was a satire and statement about our attachment to virtual worlds, I had to see it for myself – and I don’t regret it. The protagonists are a bit one-dimensional for now, but I think that further issues will subvert and twist our expectations – plus, the visions of Garden Tokyo are some of the best bits of art I saw all month. If you’re looking for high concept and big vision of the kind you loved in Akira or Children of Men, look no further.

Favorite Moment: That two-page spread of the motorcycle. You know the one.

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Usagi Yojimbo #148

Rabbits that are also Samurai. I unfairly dismissed Usagi Yojimbo for years based on its twee animals-as-warriors premise and only this year did I uncover the error of my ways. While it took me a while, at first, to parse the clipped lines and bright colors of this comic, I haven’t regretted taking the plunge even a bit. It’s a 30-year series with a rich history. It gets better and better each month I read it, and I’m saving my pennies to buy back anthologies of this one. Meanwhile, I think this issue stands alone as a superb piece of storytelling. A lone ronin faces down a foe so feared he wears the bones of his enemies on a necklace. It’s straight out of an 80s-inflected Kurosawa – and I can’t recommend it more.

Favorite Moment: Actually, it’s the composition on the lovely cover.

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