Dance Clubs and Kenobis – Top 15 Comics of Jan. 2016

Jan 16 Top Comics

2015 was a good year for comics filled with a ton of high quality titles and huge events that brought big stories and even bigger changes to some of the comic industry’s most beloved properties and universes. January 2016 continued that train of quality with a number of excellent books delivering stories grounded in superheroes, space opera, dance contests and more. As we move deeper into February, take a look back and check out Marshall Lemon, Grey Carter and Stew Shearer’s favorite comic books for the past month.

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Secret Wars #9
Universe shaking mega events are sadly pretty common in the realm of comics. The miraculous thing about Secret Wars is that it was actually pretty good. While a few of the Battleworld books were mediocre, most of were a ton of fun, presenting readers with wonderfully wacky versions of their favorite characters and heroes. The main event, likewise, was really well done, telling the epic tale filled with great character moments and action on a titanic scale that even Marvel’s stable of heroes rarely experience. It’s only appropriate, in turn, that Secret Wars 9 bring the whole to a close in a way that feels both personal and tremendous. I won’t go too much into details to avoid spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet (what are you waiting for!?) , but I will say that the final confrontation between Dr. Doom and Reed Richards is perfect and will be remembered for years to come.

Favorite Moment: “Yes, damn you… Now die!”

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Superman: American Alien #3

From now on, when someone tells me “Superman isn’t interesting because he’s a boy scout”, I’m going to slap them in the face with American Alien. And they’ll deserve it. This is a book where Clark Kent sneaks into a party, gets completely drunk, and has sex with Wonder Woman‘s archenemy. And it’s all deeply compelling … even if he still slightly behaves like a goody two-shoes along the way.

American Alien #3 begins as Clark leaves Smallville following a break-up with Lana Lang. But when his plane crashes into the ocean, he’s “rescued” by Bruce Wayne’s birthday yacht, filled with the richest young adults of the DCU. And since Bruce never shows up to his own parties, Clark is immediately mistaken for the wealthy billionaire. So, like any normal person might do, he rolls with it, and comes to some surprise realizations about his future along the way.

What’s great about this American Alien is how it perfectly balances Clark’s self-discovery with a who’s-who of DC characters. Clark parties with Oliver Queen and Sue Dibny. He finds a surprising connection with a young archeologist named Barbara Minerva. Even Ra’s Al Ghul makes a brief appearance. And that’s not even a cameo I need to worry about spoiling – as you’ll see if you read it. Which you should.

Also, DC? If Max Landis pitches another Superman, take it. This stuff is better than Landis’ movies.

Favorite Moment: “No, I fine. Jus’ a li’l dizzy, maybe.”


Ekho Vol. 1: New York

The fact that most English-speaking comic fans have never heard of Alessandro Barbucci is, and I’m not exaggerating here, criminal. He’s one of the best artists in the business right now. His mix of insane religious symbolism and manga-inspired, curvy cheesecake in Sky Doll (another project in his long-running partnership with writer, Barbara Canepa) is fantastic in every sense of the word. His expressions, linework, background detail, color choices and color technique are all brilliant.

His new project, Ekho, a collaboration with French comics legend, Christophe Arleston, looks absolutely stunning. Barbucci’s character designs and colour work (mostly warm yellows and browns, with dips into deep blues for nighttime scenes) are fantastic as usual, but his background work steals the show here. Every panel is dense with detail. Even at just fifty pages, the first volume took me hours to read – there’s just so much going on in each page.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the quality of Barbucci’s art work that makes the comic more fun to look at than to read. The story itself is great. Fourmille, an aimless twenty-something, and Yuri, a computer engineer unlucky enough to be sitting next to Fourmille when the story starts, are sucked through a wormhole and trapped in a fantasy version of New York run by magically inclined squirrels. Fourmille inherits her recently deceased aunt’s talent agency while Yuri ends up sleeping rough and being hunted by monsters in central park. Things just get weirder from there, with the first volume focusing on Fourmille’s aunt and her suspicious demise. The story bounces along at a good pace and it never takes itself too seriously, but it’s clearly meant to be funny and most of the jokes fall flat thanks to the seriously awful translation.

No exaggeration, I have never seen a professional translation worse than this one. When characters aren’t speaking incoherent gibberish, the on-the-nose, literal translation of the dialogue make all the characters sound like middle-aged bank managers. Then there’s numerous typos and at least two instances of dialogue overlapping the edges of its own speech bubble. It’s rushed and clumsy, and a comic of this caliber deserves so much better.

Ekho is still strong enough to make my top 5 list for the month and hopefully volume 2 is more polished. I’d still advise waiting for the trade.

Favorite Moment: The comic’s first wide shot of the city.

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Silver Surfer #1
Relaunching with Dan Slott again at the helm, Silver Surfer 1 retains the wonderful the warm-heartedness that defined it pre-Secret Wars. Opening with the Surfer and his companion Dawn Greenwood on their way back to Earth, the duo foil an attempt by attacking aliens to steal the planet’s “resources.” Little do they suspect that the aliens weren’t after something typical like metal or fuel, but rather the Earth’s culture. Quickly returning with reinforcements, they suck the planet dry of its movies, music, books and art. Heading back into space to take back humanity’s creative accomplishments, Dawn and the Surfer engage in what has to be one of the most spectacularly goofy battles in the history of Marvel. The whole comic is an absolute joy and will bring a new smile to your face with each passing page.

Favorite Moment: “-If ever, oh ever a wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one because-“

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Leaving Megalopolis: Surviving Megalopolis #1

I adored the original Leaving Megalopolis, a tale of ordinary civilians escaping a city of homicidal superheroes. So of course I took notice when Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore announced their sequel, Surviving Megalopolis, would be published as a Dark Horse mini-series. My only reservation was that I’d have to wait each month before reading a new chapter, unlike the first volume. Thankfully, that’s my only concern, since Surviving Megalopolis is off to a great start that fans of the original should love.

After the events of Leaving Megalopolis, the escaped survivors are trying to move on with their lives and handle an increased media presence. But there are still people inside Megalopolis, including a billionaire who was stopping by for a half-hour meeting. This billionaire’s wife hired a team of mercenaries to extract him, but they need guides – something these escaped survivors would be ideal for. And if they help, the mercenaries will sweeten the pot by saving Mina, the Leaving Megalopolis protagonist still trapped with the former heroes.

So far, Surviving Megalopolis is a worthy follow-up to Leaving that should take the premise in some interesting directions. On top of returning characters like Mina, we’re also taking a closer look at Megalopolis’ heroes – including a vigilante who seemingly wasn’t affected by whatever drove the heroes insane. While Leaving‘s gory violence hasn’t picked up again just yet, much of the tension behind it is still there – especially when you notice the background wreckage in Megalopolis’ waters.

In all, this is a great excuse to head back to Megalopolis. God help you.

Favorite Moment: “Well. Now I’m going to screw his fucking brains out.”


Injection #6

Six issues in and I still have no idea what’s going on in Injection. It’s got something to do with a unique think tank and a living computer that’s making magic real, I think? Like a lot of Warren Ellis’ work, Injection is hard to follow and expects the reader to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to piecing the narrative together. And the narrative is certainly in pieces. With five lead characters, multiple flash-backs, and jumps between genres, Injection can be confusing.

Yet the characters hold it all together. They’re a fun subversion of the usual super genius team up tropes. You’ve got your usual suspects – a mad doctor, a hacker, a genius detective, a super spy and a wizard – but with the grim twists Ellis is known for. The characters are all damaged, either by their experiences with the now-disbanded “unit” and its secretive project “the injection,” or just by life in general.

Issue #6 finally gives genius detective, Vivek Headland, time to shine, and he’s hilarious. Vivek is a kind of way over-the-top take on the Holmes archetype (to the point where the other characters often criticize him for “Sherlock Holmes shit”). His dry personality contrasts beautifully with the genuinely mad shit he says. Example: This issue hinges on Vivek recognizing human meat from the taste. The look on his personal chef’s face when he explains how he identified the taste is priceless. Vivek could carry the comic on his own, but he works best when paired with the more down to earth characters.

Injection’s linework, courtesy of Irish artist Declan Shalvey (who previously collaborated with Ellis on Moon Knight), is workmanlike. I’m not a fan, but it’s strong enough to carry the comic. Jodie Bellaire’s (colorist for Pretty Deadly, Nowhere Men and Moon Knight color work is superb. As with Nowhere Men, she mostly relies on pale blues and greys to sell Vivek’s hyper-clean living environment, but she delves into lovely warm browns for Vivek’s hilariously rustic “human room.” There’s a wonderful flashback sequence done entirely in red and black that stands out. Great stuff.

As long as you’re willing to put some effort in [i]Injection is a great comic that mixes horror with dark humor to a wonderful effect.

Favorite Moment: Vivek is still mad about a lichen sandwich his chef made for him in issue #2. “Sandwiches for our guest. Nothing with lichen in. Or my vengeance will be so nuclear in its savagery that your ruined corpse will travel back in time and explode inside your mother’s womb.”

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Ms. Marvel #3
Much like Silver Surfer 1, Ms. Marvel 3 earns a spot on January’s round up thanks to its pronounced ability to make the reader smile. With Ms. Marvek, G. Willow Wilson has frequently demonstrated that she is probably one of the most human writers that Marvel has. She’s in top form in Ms. Marvel 3, especially in the section where Kamala has to handle an awkward team-up with Michaela, the new girlfriend of her former sort-of love interest. Whereas past issues have seen her acting upset and irrational toward this romantic interloper, the circumstances force her to finally engage with someone she’d been hating from a distance and realize that she’s actually a pretty cool person too. It’s small, genuine exchanges like that that make this book such a treat.

Favorite Moment: “Time to science.”

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Clean Room #4

Clean Room‘s first issues introduced a dangerous cult with a massive following and more money than God. While that cult is still plenty scary, we’re starting to get a sense that what it’s investigating is far worse. It seems Astrid’s organization isn’t about uplifting people’s lives: It’s learning the truth behind demonic presences within the human subconscious. And after years of experimenting on the mentally ill and psychotic, Astrid finally has one trapped inside her Clean Room. The only problem being that she’s also trapped with it.

Meanwhile, the creatures already released from subconscious prisons are hunting Chloe, who’s convinced she’s being harassed by Blue Utopian followers. Which is an easy mistake when the Blue Utopians actually are harassing you.

Each new danger and mystery in Clean Room has built up to a sense of dread you can pretty much cut with a knife at this point. And unlike some horror stories, these characters are well-developed and likable enough that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Even some of the cultists. (I personally didn’t expect to like Astrid’s bodyguard at this point, but here we are.)

At this point, two things are clear: Something terrible is going to happen in Clean Room, and I won’t be able to look away.

Favorite Moment: “Because you’re our neighbor, Miss Pierce. You have a fine, sleepy-sweet night, hear?”

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Space Mullet!

The term “webcomic” feels antiquated at this point. It brings to mind poorly compressed .gif monstrosities about two gamers, one of which is always clad in a backwards baseball cap, sitting on a couch and making jokes about fucking watermelons or whatever. Even the big, narrative-driven webcomics of the early 00’s felt like compromises – like we were trading production values and technical skill for extended universes and geeky references. But that’s not the case any more. The net’s growth into a cultural cornerstone and the most important market place has brought a glut of professional talent into the field of digital comics. Talent that isn’t creating what are traditionally thought of as “webcomics” (though they still exist, I write one) but “comics.” Comics that can stand with the best that print media has to offer.

Example: Daniel Warren Johnson’s Space Mullet has some of the best action sequences in comics, period. They’re fast, loud and brutal, combining the heavy use of action lines and tech fetishism of 90s manga with the innovative typographical work of American superhero comics and the densely textured gore of 2000AD circa the late 1980s. Starkly drawn in black, white and blue, Johnson’s art starts a bit rough, with lines just a touch too thick and a little bit too much empty page space to sell his gritty style, but by the excellent opening to chapter 3 he finds his groove, and by chapter 4 his tent is firmly pitched somewhere between Katsuhiro Otomo and Frank Quietly. Visually, it’s top notch stuff.

And despite the comic’s unassuming title, there’s a decent story to be had here as well. The plot isn’t spectacularly original, a disgraced former marine with a dark, secret, his alien friend who turns out to be important back on his home planet, psychic alien child, tough space chick, etc, but Johnson embraces these cliches and cleverly weaves them into a surprisingly complex and fleshed out universe. He humanizes it all with, well worn but still endearing character beats. Space Mullet is definitely self aware and referential, but it doesn’t overdo the “look what I did here, wink wink,” irony. It’s a space opera, which is an inherently cheesy genre, but it’s a genuine one.

You can read Space Mullet here.

Favorite Moment: When Jonah finally cuts lose and empties a pistol magazine into a sword-wielding, humanoid T-Rex.

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Star Wars #15
With Marvel’s first big Star Wars crossover, Vader Down, coming to a close, Star Wars-writer Jason Aaron opted to deliver a smaller personal story before hopping into the series next big arc. And honestly, as I said the last time Star Wars turned its eye toward post-prequels/pre-OT Obi-Wan, I kind of wish the book would focus all of its attention here.

When issue 15 begins, Obi-Wan is still watching over Luke from afar. Far from a silent protector however, he’s spent his time on Tatooine actively intervening in local affairs. Fighting raiders, meddling with Jabba the Hutt; he’s found it almost impossible to quell his instinct to help people. This comes to a head when young Luke crashes his T-16 and Uncle Owen refuses to buy the parts needed to repair it. Hoping to the help Luke any way he can, Obi-Wan makes a bargain with some Jawas to get the parts for the damaged Skyhopper. This leads to an angry confrontation with Owen where he accuses Obi-Wan of jeopardizing Luke’s life with his antics.

The issue overall just does a great job of fleshing out details that were never fully explored by the original films themselves. We see more of Obi-Wan as he struggles with his life post-Revenge of the Sith and we get a deeper inkling into the concerns that were driving Uncle Owen in his later attempts to dissuade Luke from getting closer to “that crazy old wizard.” The comic ended on a cliffhanger and I look forward to seeing what happens next in issue 16.

Favorite Moment: “Haven’t you murdered enough Skywalkers already, Kenobi?”

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Wolf #5

It’s official: I have no idea what’s happening in Wolf anymore. Its first storyline packed an entire season’s worth of supernatural plotlines into four issues, ending with a cliffhanger that left me wondering if the apocalypse was starting. Now we’ve five years in the future, and Earth’s still here. Wolf is locked up in a prison while the teenage antichrist slaughters cattle in a remote desert. I’m utterly confused about what’s happened between issues and where the series is going – but I don’t much care. Wolf is unusual, but it’s still so fun and well-presented that I’m happy to enjoy the ride.

If you’re new to the series, it follows a seemingly immortal magician named Wolf who looks out for the supernatural community in Los Angeles. Last month, he was caring for a young girl – Anita – bred to start the apocalypse. (Also, she’s a werewolf. But that’s not important right now.) The good news is if Anita was an Antichrist, she wasn’t old enough to start the End Times. The bad news is with the time jump, she’s about to turn 18. Wolf is now the only person who might help Anita straighten everything out, and he’s imprisoned by enemies who drain his blood to fuel their soldiers.

Wolf deals in several common supernatural tropes – like monsters living in plain sight or apocalypses looming just around the corner – but still spins them in fresh and hilarious ways. Like the Yeti who claims he’s glamoured to resemble George Clooney, or the relationship between a vampire and a kind-hearted eldritch-spawn. There’s a lot to break down in each Wolf issue, but that just means there’s a great chance of finding something you’ll love. If you’re looking for a unique take on the supernatural, give Wolf a read.

Favorite Moment: “Well… to tell the truth… I feel up for some kinky roleplay.”

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(Seshiji o Pin! to – Shikakou Kyougi Dance-bu e Youkoso)

It says a lot about the diversity of manga that Straighten Up! Welcome to Shika High’s Competitive Dance Club isn’t the only manga about competitive ballroom dancing in my reading list. It is, however, definitely the most adorable.

On its surface, Straighten Up! sticks quite rigidly to the traditional sports-manga formula. Looking to boost their self confidence, pint-sized leads, Tsuchiya and Watari, join their highschool dancesport club. Competitions, rivalries and drama soon follow, but what sets Staighten Up! apart from the more the more serious Sweep the Dancefloor (Ballroom e Youkoso) is its innate sense of fun and surprisingly subversive sense of humour.

The denizens of the school’s dance club are a funny bunch. There’s Masumi, the comically muscular club president who’s also a literal monster on the dance floor; his elegant partner Rio; and the two second-year dancers, Akiyo and Yamaki, who channel their spiteful, antagonistic partnership into comically overblown, fiery Latin dance. Tsuchiya and Watari meanwhile, are almost comically undersized, and, in a funny twist, not actually very good. It’s actually kind of refreshing to have sports manga leads who aren’t physically-gifted prodigies. Instead, the childlike pair just love dancing, and their perseverance in the face of (repeated) failure is endearing. And that isn’t the only way that Straighten Up! subverts expectations. There’s quite a lot of jokes that have characters subtly breaking the fourth wall, commenting on the needs of the story as a whole, or the stereotypical roles they’re forced to take on. It’s fun, if slight, stuff.

Strong art, sexy characters and cute expression work keep the comedy/drama flowing, but it’s the dance sequences that really stand out. Tsuchiya and Watari’s joyful, clumsy waltzes are cute, full of bold angles and exaggerated expressions, while the higher-level dancing is drawn almost like a fight sequence, complete with powerful posing, a wonderful sense of motion and dramatic reaction shots.

Straighten Up! hasn’t been released in English (yet) but Underdog Scans are keeping up with releases. As usual, I advise you to avoid for-profit manga aggregators like Mangafox and its ilk and get your manga directly from the scanlators where possible. If you like the manga, please buy a copy if it’s ever released in the west.

Favorite Moment: Basically any of the two-page spreads with Akiyo and Yamaki. They’re brilliant.

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All-New X-Men #3
I haven’t been altogether too impressed with the post-Secret Wars crop of X-Men comics. They haven’t been especially bad or anything, they’ve mostly just felt a bit “meh.” The problem, in my view, is that Marvel is falling into one of the biggest traps that comics get caught in. Everything has to be big all the time. Mutankind is once again on the brink of extinction and the X-Men have to find a way to safe guard their species and prove they have a place in the blah blah blah. I’d say the stakes couldn’t be higher but this pretty much seems like the norm for mutant at this point.

What’s have to All-New X-Men 3 you ask? Well, much like the previous All-New X-Men series, this one is distinguishing itself by keeping its focus relatively tight. The first three issues haven’t been about the looming doom threatening mutankind. They’ve been about Scott Summers (the time-displaced one) trying to figure out his role in a world where his older self has put placed a permanent black mark on his name. I’ve always thought the X-Men books were at their best when they focused on characters rather than events. All-New X-Men provides ample evidence that that is still the case.

Favorite Moment: “Making mistakes while mutant shouldn’t earn someone a bullet. It doesn’t have to start a war.”

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Southern Bastards # 13

I’ve never considered myself to be especially interested in sports. While I’ll certainly watch them to pass the time, I’m rarely concerned with any strategies or the statistics of players in the field. So it’s really telling that Southern Bastards‘ thirteenth issue – which is nothing more than a Homecoming game – actually sucked me and left me rooting for Coach Boss. Who, in case you’ve forgotten, is still a vicious fucking crime lord.

Of course, that criminal lifestyle certainly adds tension to the proceedings. As the Homecoming game quickly favors the away team, Boss is appearing weak before the entire town – something he cannot afford after his handling of Earl Tubb. But events on the field are no less brutal, especially as the home team is literally crushed by a star player while angry parents scream from the sidelines. This game effectively encapsulates everything awful about football, while still spinning an underdog story that leaves you praying for it to turnaround in the last corner.

On its own, Southern Bastards #13 isn’t advancing the story in a substantial way. But it’s hard to deny the foreshadowing at play, especially if Tubb’s daughter finally returns home next issue. The question is whether after all that’s happened you’ll actually feel some sympathy for Boss when the real conflict finally begins.

Go Rebs.

Favorite Moment: Coach Boss’ speech.


X-Men: Worst X-Man Ever

So a word of warning before you delve into this one: I do not give even the slimmest part of a fraction of a fuck about the X-Men. I’ve seen the movies and I’ve got fond memories of the cartoon, but my interest in the universe is limited to the occasional stand-alone and X23 comic. Ergo, I have no idea how or if Worst X-Man Ever fits into the X-Men canon or if its take on the franchises’ characters are authentic. That, my friends, is the realm of cape shit, and I don’t do cape shit. That’s Stew’s job.

But yeah, Worst X-Man Ever is funny enough to warrant a look, even if you’re not a fan of the series. It has a cute setup. Bailey is a bland adolescent whose only noteworthy quality is his distinct lack of noteworthy qualities. When he discovers he’s a mutant, he’s overjoyed, thinking his new superpowers will make him more interesting. Unfortunately for Bailey, his powers are complete shit. He can explode at will, but lacking any healing factor or a way to reform himself afterward, the explosion would be instantly fatal.

“At least I have you guys,” says a dejected Bailey to his parents as they leave the X-Mansion.

His parents are promptly crushed to death by a sentinel landing on the mansion’s lawn.

That’s the first in a series of laugh-out-loud moments in Worst X-Man Ever. Now an orphan, Bailey joins the latest generation of the X-Men as its least useful member. There’s a lot of jokes at the expense of the series’ long-running narratives and frequent retcons, but Worst mostly trades on contrasting Bailey’s boring teenage problems against the silly background of a superhero serial. He’s almost seduced by Mystique, kidnapped by Magneto, dragged into fights, etc. At one point he discovers an Omega-level mutant who can rewrite reality at will. She turns out to be just as boring as he is. They bond.

The art by Continuum artist, Michael Walsh, is honestly pretty shabby, but it actually fits the comics offbeat nature. Say Anything frontman, Max Bemis, pens the scripts, and his sharp dialogue and inventive story turns are doing most of the heavy lifting. Normally, I’d expect a comic like this to end with a belabored point about how everyone is special, powers or not, but I’m also half expecting a sudden curve-ball in the final issue. I guess we’ll find out when #5 hits this month.

Favorite Moment: “When it comes to my talents, I’m pretty much the Macklemore of the scene.”

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