What were you thankful for during November’s holiday season? If you’re a comic book reader, probably the massive amount of quality work to come out in a single month. Marvel Comics has wrapped up its Secret Wars event, letting it introduce a changed universe. The Darth Vader Down event began, uniting most Star Wars titles in an epic battle with the Sith Lord. Saga returned to print while Brian K. Vaughn continued his impressive output across multiple titles. Meanwhile, Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello teamed up for a new Dark Knight sequel – and it doesn’t suck.
Whether you love mainstream superheroes, or creator-owned indie books, there’s something for everyone this week. Grey Carter, Marshall Lemon, and Stew Shearer have listed their favorites, but let’s get started with the biggest elephant in the room:
The Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1
It’s hard to imagine a creator with a more tumultuous Batman history than Frank Miller. The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One were two of the most important Batman comics ever published, a one-two punch which catapulted Miller into mass media stardom. Then The Dark Knight Strikes Again fell on its face, All-Star Batman & Robin was critically reviled, and Holy Terror, Batman was considered so offensive that DC refused to publish it. So when Miller announced he was working on a new Batman book – a new Dark Knight sequel in fact – you can imagine the anxiety and horror that rippled across the comic book world.
The good news? The Dark Knight III: The Master Race is actually pretty good, reading far closer in spirit to Returns than any of Miller’s sequels or spin-offs.
Set several years after DK2‘s revolution, Batman emerges from obscurity when Gotham’s police officers start shooting down black youth. After images of the battle are shared online, a political media scandal puts pressure on Commissioner Yindel to stop Batman once and for all. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman commands the Amazons from their rainforest home, Superman has permanently withdrawn to his Fortress of Solitude, and Lara has begun a new quest – restore the people of Kandor to their regular size.
The Dark Knight III‘s first issue lays a basic groundwork for future issues to build on, but it’s a promising start all the same. It even downplays most of DK2‘s cosmic strangeness while still keeping minor elements tucked into the background. (Like how the President must take DNA tests to prove he exists.) That allows DK3 to focus on the gritty, vigilante-inspired action which made Returns worth reading. Speaking of vigilantism, Batman fighting multiple corrupt police officers again really fits the character, and is more than a little relevant given recent tragedies. And when superpowered acts do occur – most notably when Wonder Woman fights a mythical creature – it’s treated with just enough otherworldly reverence to intrigue the reader instead of overwhelming them.
It’s still pretty early, but for the first time in years, I’m excited for a new Frank Miller Batman book. Here’s hoping future issues live up to what started here.
Favorite Moment: Batman fighting the police.
Superman: American Alien #1
There are a lot of Superman origin stories out there – The Man of Steel, Birthright, Secret Origins, and many more. Most of them are pretty good, too. But very few strike that balance where Superman feels like a relatable human being. Usually, they’re just a little too quick to treat Clark Kent like a well-adjusted, compassionate superhero the moment he leaves his rocket. Well, Superman: American Alien is not that kind of story. And thank Rao for that, because it really helps this series stand out from the rest.
To be clear, the Clark Kent of American Alien isn’t a bad kid. He’s just a child first, viewing the world with a terror and wonder many adults have since forgotten about. He has no pretensions of being a great hero, he’s simply afraid of what’s happening to him as his powers emerge. And once he finally has a grasp on his abilities, he embraces them with the innocent joy that only a child can.
Add the emotional ups and downs of parents who have no idea how to handle superpowers, but love and protect their son all the same, and you have a heartfelt take on the world’s greatest superhero. (The memorabilia table on the last page is especially powerful if you read all the notes carefully.) And that’s just Issue 1, with others promising very different takes on Clark Kent as he grows up. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Favorite Moment: “Why didn’t he put shoes on?” “I was too scared.”
The Sandman: Overture Deluxe Edition
As I said for our holiday gift-guide, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is one of the most significant and influential comics ever published. The entire scope of history, fantasy realms, and obscure elements from DC lore were its playground, all merged together into a single metaphysical setting. But there was one story Gaiman never got around to telling – the events of the cosmic war which left Dream weakened before the very first issue. Twenty years later, The Sandman: Overture finally tells this story, and it does not disappoint.
After reading the Deluxe Hardcover edition, what strikes me most is how much Gaiman was able to pack into a single storyline. You have Dream’s journeys to the edges of space, the limits of time, and the heart of a black hole. Epic threats which wipe out multiple civilizations. Returning characters from the entire length and breadth of Sandman‘s original run. New elements of Sandman lore, up to and including Dream’s parents. And most importantly, you have a story that wonderfully balances the cosmic with the personal – effortlessly moving from interstellar devastation to individual tragedies without missing a beat.
Combined, Overture is everything you’d want from a Sandman story and more. The only disappointing thing is that when you finish the last page, you’ll find yourself missing and longing for new Endless tales all over again.
Favorite Moment: “He is laughing.”
We Stand On Guard #5
Oh boy, here we go!
As much as I’ve enjoyed We Stand On Guard so far, it’s been a little lackluster in the giant robot fight department. While last issue was a great change of pace, this month gets even better. On one side of the Battlefield are the Two-Four, Canadian insurgents piloting an enormous tank. And across from them is a floating Doom Fortress controlled by the United States of America. The clash is just as impressive as it sounds, evidence that We Stand On Guard wasn’t lacking in action: It was just saving up.
But Issue 5 isn’t only unique for its action sequences – it also raises the stakes of battle. The entire combat takes place over a major Canadian body of water, the ownership of which will determine the fate of millions of Canadian and American lives. (Especially if an errant bomb breaches the nearby arsenic reservoir.) And that’s not getting into the fact that members of the Two-Four are actually killed this issue. In fact, I found it hard to tell who was still alive by the time I reached a cliffhanger ending that had me on the edge of my seat.
With one issue left to go, We Stand On Guard looks like it’s going to have an explosive finale. In the meantime, these current pages will not disappoint.
Favorite Moment: “Your biggest concern is a Francophone comedian?”
Clean Room #2
It certainly didn’t take long to reach Clean Room‘s Clean Room, but the encounter is certainly going to raise more questions than answers. After finally getting cult leader Astrid’s attention in the first issue, Chloe negotiates a viewing of the Blue Utopian’s best-kept secret. What she finds is a chamber which unearths the sins of its occupants – although whether the experience is literal or takes place on a mental level remains to be seen. Not that it makes much difference to the person being “cleaned”, whose purged demons can now follow them across their everyday lives.
Speaking of demons, can we take a moment to acknowledge how fantastic the monster designs are in this series? While they only appear for brief moments in each issue, they’re still terrifying and wonderful to behold. (The creature that appears during Chloe and Astrid’s interview is my favorite of the issue.) But the real monster seems to be Astrid, who seemingly has the ability to assess Chloe’s sins and inner demons without even using a Clean Room. Although whether that’s related to supernatural phenomenon, or her cultlike understanding of human nature remains to be seen.
Clean Room is really working its slow burn, but makes the wait worthwhile with unsettling art and even more unsettling cult practices. If following that kind of dark journey interests you, step into a Clean Room today to see it for yourself.
Favorite Moment: “Keep out? Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Black Magick #2
As I’ve said before, I have mixed feelings about magical detective stories. Between comics, movies, TV shows, and novels, this genre is so well-trodden that it’s hard to do something fresh. Black Magick has an intriguing solution – what if the hero wants to their keep magic and detective work separate? What if after making a major bust, they left the cop bar to take part in a ritualistic pagan ceremonies? And what happens when, against their wishes, those two worlds start to blend together?
That’s the premise of Black Magick. Last month’s issue introduced Rowan Black, a police detective who also happens to be a member of an esoteric pagan order from before the era of witch burnings. But now ancient Inquisitor-like enemies have returned to target Black personally – and this time, they’re not afraid to use magic in their quest. Rowan must manage her own caseload and worry about magical threats, which is becoming harder as her own department investigates bodies from these supernatural encounters.
Issue 2 is focused largely on the police procedural side of things, but still has lots of ways to draw readers in. The grey art tones, character developments, and research into pagan beliefs all comes together into something really unique. Throw in a hinted backstory which stretches across generations, and a strong protagonist in Rowan Black, and this is shaping up to be a solid new series. Whether you enjoy police dramas or supernatural adventures, Black Magick has something for you.
Favorite Moment: “A little toasty, but I’m good to go.”
Mid-life crisises can be terribly damaging to people who experience them. You spent years surviving adolesence, reaching the point where you feel in complete control of your body, only to discover that point is a peak. Now it’s all downhill for the rest of your life, and some people want to prove – to themselves, if no one else – that they’re just as physically capable as before. Maybe even better.
Josh Jaffe is getting old. He’s lost his job, suffers from a variety of ailments, and no longer has the respect of his wife and son. After six months with seemingly no way of getting that feeling back, he turns to online pills to up his abilities. With the pill “Jacked”, he gets more than he bargained for, unlocking literal superpowers beyond what mortal men experience. At first, this seems to be a good thing when he steps up to save a man’s life. But the powers are also temporary – raising the question of how far Jaffe will go to feel powerful forever.
We have no shortage of allegorical middle-age comics, Starlight being one great recent example. But Jacked is unique for combining superhero and addition story genres in a single series. Josh is human and relatable, but he’s far from a selfless hero. That means Jacked starts from a very mundane place, and quickly highlights how dark the story will ultimately become, even if you’re laughing along the way.
Favorite Moment: “Because normally? I’m the last fucking guy to do something like this.”
Uncanny X-Men #600
Marking the end of Brian Michael Bendis’s time with Marvel’s X-Men, Uncanny 600 is something of a mixed comic that’s big on character moments while also offering a somewhat anti-climactic end to its central conflict. Opening with the X-Men taking Hank “Beast” McCoy to task for some of his recent spate of poor, potentially universe destroying decisions, 600 doesn’t really do much with that besides making it clear that Beast’s friends and teammates don’t really trust him anymore.
After this, the comic spends the rest of its time concluding and resolving a number of hanging plot threads. The issue of Iceman’s homosexuality is explored, as are previous hints that time-displaced Jean Grey might be dropping her traditional lover Scott Summers for a new relationship with the young version of Beast. Perhaps the biggest moment is the return of adult Scott Summers. Bendis’s run on Uncanny X-Men has been largely focused on Cyclop’s move away from the cooperative stance of Charles Xavier to a more militant philosophy. 600 brings that arc to a close, with the iconic character basically returning to the peacekeepers fold.
I won’t say that this a perfect comic and there are definitely moments that felt a bit rushed and I almost think I would have preferred for the comic to stay more focused on the “trial of Hank McCoy.” Even so, it’s still worth reading, especially if you’ve been as invested in Bendis’s storylines as some of us have been over the past few years.
Favorite Moment: “So you are gay.”
Star Wars: Vader Down #1
The opening issue of Marvel’s first major Star Wars crossover, Star Wars: Vader Down, start with a ban and doesn’t let up until your hit the back cover. Opening with Darth Vader travelling to the planet Vrogas Vas in search of Luke Skywalker, things quickly go bad for the dark lord when he runs into three X-Wing squadrons out performing drills. Attacking the X-Wings head-on, Vader uses his skills as a pilot in conjunction with the Force to devastate the Rebels. This leads Luke, launching with Red Squadron, to ram Vader in a desperate attempt to bring the villain down. With both father and son crash-landing on the planet below, the Rebellion scrambles everything it can to finish him off.
Being honest, most of this issue is just setup. It’s all about getting Vader down onto the planet’s surface so he can starting wrecking the Rebels. That said, as far as setup goes, it’s pretty danged glorious. The art here is top notch and Jason Aaron’s writing in this issue is, as usual, really good. I will say that there are a few moments that make Vader look almost ridiculously powerful, but overall it’s a really solid comic that will leave you itching more.
Favorite Moment: “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.”
Darth Vader #13
Thankfully, Vader Down continues in Darth Vader 13, so the wait for more wasn’t long.
If Vader Down itself setup the story’s conflict, Darth Vader 13 pulls the trigger on the whole affair. And Palpatine’s socks are the results glorious. Surrounded by an entire company of Rebel soldiers, Vader uses the Force to turn their own weapons against them, wreaking havoc and spreading terror and chaos among their ranks. Meanwhile, Luke stumbles onto a ruined Jedi temple where he has an unfortunate encounter with Aphra, an agent in Vader’s employ.
What ultimately convinced me to recommend this comic, even though I’d already suggested Vader Down itself, is just how well it corrects course in terms of some of my concerns. In the opening issue of Vader Down there was a moment or two where it looked like the story might make the mistake of portraying Vader as this unstoppable killing machine hacking and slashing his way through the Rebel ranks without any difficulty. In Darth Vader 13 he does come across as pretty damn unstoppable, but this portrayal is tempered by Vader being less a bruiser and more of a strategist. He distracts, he plans ahead and he improvises. The best touch is how nonchalant he is about the Rebels attacking him. He barely even regards them as a threat. Add in some nice character moments for Han Solo and Princess Leia and you have a comic that’s pretty much a must read for Star Wars fans.
Favorite Moment: “Captain! My grenades ar-“
The Mighty Thor #1
Jason Aaron is a rock star when it comes to writing Thor comics. For the past few years he’s helmed the rudder of Asgard, directing the God of Thunder through a series of adventures that were, as a standard, epic and transformative. Now, with Secret Wars coming to an end, Aaron continues the adventures of (female) Thor in The Mighty Thor. When last we left the Asgardian heroine, it had been revealed that she was actually Dr. Jane Foster. In the midst of a battle with cancer, she was chosen by Mjolnir to become a hero and take up the mantle of Thor. As Mighty 1 reveals, however, Foster’s stint a superhero comes with a price. Every time she picks up Mjolnir and become Thor, it cleanses her body of the drugs that are supposed to be treating her cancer. Being Thor is literally killing her. With sinister forces pushing the nine realms into war however, it’s a fate she may have to accept if she wants to stop her enemies and save the day.
Other things happen in this comic, but really, it’s this central conflict that makes Mighty Thor so interesting. Jane Foster’s plight -save others or save myself- is one that’s incredibly relatable. It also doesn’t hurt that Aaron has taken Jane (originally little more than a pretty, bland face for Thor to pine over) and molded her into a really great character. As much as I look forward to seeing where the plot’s leading, it will be the tale of Jane Foster that keeps me coming back each month.
Favorite Moment: “Who knew dying could be this much fun?”
Ms. Marvel #1
I hated high school. I really did. There’s never been a time in my life where quite as out of place or awkward. What the heck is it about the high school drama of Ms. Marvel then that’s so danged infectious? Seriously, this is a comic where Ms. Marvel joins the Avengers and fights a swarm of mechanized bees, and yet it’s the teenage high school stuff that I found most enjoyable in Ms. Marvel 1.
Taking place immediately after the events of Secret Wars, the comic focuses primarily on Kamala Khan’s struggles to balance her life as a superhero with her life as a teenager attending high school. Most specifically Kamala is shocked when she discovered that her longtime best friend/almost-love-interest Bruno has moved on from her and starting dating someone else. What I think I like best about this is the way it taps into the age old reality that being a superhero, exciting as it is, can also be a tremendous burden. As Kamala says herself, at one point, “maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.” In the end, Ms. Marvel simply just remains an excellent comic headlined by easily one of Marvel’s most endearing protagonists. If you haven’t hopped on this series’ band wagon yet, make Ms. Marvel 1 the issue where you do it.
Favorite Moment: “Growing up sucks.”
Suiciders Volume 1
It seems to me almost criminal that Lee Bermejo is not only a fantastic artist (you’ll most likely recognize his angular lines and crisp value work from Joker) but also a decent writer given half the chance. Suiciders is unlikely to win any awards for originality – It’s the near future; there’s been a big earthquake; Los Angeles has been abandoned by the US government; society has stratified into the cartoonishly rich and ridiculously poor and the main source of entertainment is a vaguely defined bloodsport in which giant, steroid-abusing cyborgs bash each other the head and throw each other into spike pits and whatnot. It’s all a bit low-budget, 80’s sci-fi movie. A silly, grindhouse exercise in dystopian sci-fi, but Bermejo goes about it with such ridiculous earnestness that it works. There’s no irony here. No knowing nods to how much of an 80s throwback the comic is. Bermejo is one-hundred-percent serious as he cuts from disheveled Mexican immigrants being gunned down by evil future cops to two robot-men wrastlin’ next to an industrial buzz saw. Normally I’d balk at such po-faced seriousness, but it’s honestly refreshing to see a writer dive into cheesy, dystopian exploitation without trying to play its genre tropes for laughs. Suiciders has a message – a big, dumb, glowing neon sign of a message – and it’ll let you know what it is just as soon as you’ve watched this man get punched in half.
It’s all helped along by Bemejo’s beautiful art. The Suiciders (which is apparently what we’re apparently calling buff robo dudes in the future) are ridiculously sculpted Adonises, each bulging muscle beautifully defined with a gritty, angular realism. The lesser men are all archetypes, expressive, scarred and whiskered, while the women are all curvy goddeses or waif-like mother figures (and they all seem destined to die tragically, if there’s one throwback element of Suiciders I don’t care for, it’s how it treats its female cast). The city of New Angeles is pretty, but it’s in the ruined ghettos of old LA where Bermejo really gets to ply his craft. He’s got a knack for dilapidated, crime-ridden shitholes and you’ll see some of his best work to date in this book.
The writing works too. Sure, the core plot is some mystery nonsense about the origins of The Saint, the city’s most popular Suicider, but it’s kept grounded by a simple Rocky-esque subplot about the rise of a quiet immigrant with a gift for violence to Suicider fame and fortune. The dialogue is curt and focused, but Bermejo really lets loose in the narration boxes, filling them with flowery prose about the nature of secrets and the horrors of poverty. It’d be cheesy anywhere else, but combined with his fantastic art and killer layouts, it’s always effective.
The first Suiciders volume collects issues #1-6, the first arc of the series. The last issue was published in September, I’m not sure if it’s been picked up for a second run.
What’s the best serial running right now? Bzzt. Wrong answer. As of November 25th the correct answer is once again Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga.
Yes, Saga’s back, which means you’re once again going to have to listen to someone crow about how good it is. I’m sure it’s been on this list before. It had better have been on this list before. And now, it’s on the list again, because it has to be.
Even before Saga hit shelves I’d have argued that Vaughan is one of the best, if not the best writer working in comics today. Pride, Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man, the original and best run on Runaways… the fellas’ a certified writing machine even if you discount his (excellent) merc work for the big two. Saga really is something else though, even compared to Vaughan’s previous work. It’s insanely ambitious, yet grounded by down-to-earth storytelling. Enormous, but personal. Fantastic, yet relevant in a dozen different ways. It’s pitched somewhere between a serious “issues” comic and a version of Star Wars for people who can’t get enough dick jokes. I love it.
The premise is simple enough: War on a galactic scale between two empires, star crossed lovers from either side and a mixed race child that proves that eternal warfare might not be the only answer. Alana and Marko are both deserters from opposite sides of the war. Along with their daughter Hazel, who might just be the first of her kind, they’re pursued by armies, bounty hunters and traumatized robot royalty. A simple chase eventually becomes a complex, well… saga as the various parties chasing the Hazel and her family develop grudges and alliances of their own. And that’s really the core of what makes Saga tick: Complexity out of simplicity. Characters are introduced as one note villains or simple plot devices, only to be expanded upon and given depth by their conflicts. There are very few outright evil characters in Saga, they’re all driven by complex and often contradictory moral codes. A bounty hunter introduced as a villain is eventually revealed to be an old flame of a more sympathetic character, her killer is introduced as a cold, calculating aristocrat, only for him to be humanized as a traumatized war veteran who puts the good his family above all else. The end result is a story where you find yourself kind of rooting for everybody, and dreading the seemingly inevitable showdowns because, unless the nature of these people can be changed, someone has to die.
It helps that Staples and Vaughan are absolute masters of mood and tonal shifts. They can go from crass to heartbreaking to tragic to laugh out loud funny between panels thanks to Staple’s excellent expression work and timing and Vaughan’s ultra-sharp dialogue. The best example I can think of is a sequence in which three characters try to steal life-preserving semen (bear with me) from a dragon, which goes from grotesquely funny to exciting to tragic in the space of four pages. It’s a ludicrous yet sad sequence which prompts a huge shift in another character. That’s the kind of comic Saga is: the kind where stealing semen from a giant space dragon can be the most important moment in a character’s arc.
Which brings us onto Saga’s infamous sense of humour. I’ve heard people (mostly Americans, oddly enough) call the series “gross,” but what it really is unrepentantly funny. It opens with a graphic depiction of a woman giving birth, her first line, “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting.” It features a brothel planet called “Sextillion” where ridiculous mass orgies play out in zero gravity. It’s full of outlandish non-sequiturs and characters saying hilariously human, undramatic things at dramatic moments. “No joke,” says a humanoid mouse medic she performs surgery on a robot in the middle of a battlefield, “this is going to hurt like fuck for a second.” Each issue is filled with these quotable moments. Vaughan loves to cut to characters mid conversation as they say something dumb or lose their temper. It keeps the story – which I’ll remind you has robots, people with wings, all manner of animal people, ghosts and dragons shooting at each other with lasers – human. It’s crass and shocking, but it’s also smart. This isn’t the posturing of a child trying to seem “mature,” it’s genuine adult humour that laughs in the face of dumb, sexless science fiction.
So what happens in Saga #31? Well we’re given a little back story on what happened before the latest time skip, we see Klara with some badass jail tats, we see some of the grim realities of raising a child in prison and we get a full-frontal, nude splash page of the comic’s first trans character, which is used as part of an issue-long focus on characters feeling comfortable or uncomfortable in their own bodies. You know, the usual Saga stuff.
Favorite Moment: The perfect symmetry between that splash page of Petrichor nude and Hazel stripping down to show off her wings. Beautiful stuff.
Paper Girls #2
Yeah it’s him again. If someone could figure out exactly which demon it was that Brian K. Vaughan sold his soul to, I’d appreciate it. Paper Girls isn’t quite on par with Saga, but it’s telling that Vaughan’s side projects are better than most writers’ main projects.
Paper Girls is a sci-fi mystery with a wonderfully authentic late 80s setting. Tonally it’s kind of similar to Super 8 and E.T with a darker, more modern edge and far less saccharine children as the leads. The paper girls, a suitably rag-tag collection of 12-year-old paper delivery girls who’ve banded together to defend themselves from the local trouble-making teens, are all broad teen movie stereotypes. The sensitive one, the leader, the tough chick, the nerd, but they’re fleshed out in the first, slow-burning issue and, like most of Vaughan’s characters, they feel authentic.
And authenticity is the name of the game here. There was a ton of minor details and world-building going on in the first issue. Artist, Cliff Chiang, has painstakingly captured the fashion and hairstyles of the period and Matt Wilson’s gaudy neon colour work is a perfect fit. Vaughan’s dialogue pulls no punches either. The girls are strong and independent, but not above throwing out the occasional period-appropriate slur. It’s important that the world the paper girls live in feels real rather than a movie pastiche, because while there’s some obvious sci-fi shenanigans going on in the form of creep masked mutants and semi-organic machines, it’s tiny anachronisms that have the most impact. The first issue ends with one of the girls finding what appears to be an Apple iPod. It’s a small thing, but it seems so out of place and alien next to the girls’ faded jeans and chunky wally-talkies that it demands attention.
So what’s actually going on? Well I’m not too sure. Vaughan is playing his cards close to his chest. The machine the girls encounter at the end of issue #1 appears to have done something to them, or perhaps the world around them. The sky is now filled with planets and stars (it turns out that the same colours used for gaudy 80s designs are great for colouring sci-fi starscapes), some people seem frozen in time while others have disappeared altogether. That, and the town appears to have developed an infestation of dinosaurs. Combined with the aforementioned iPod, it seems like some grade-A time-fuckery may be afoot. Regardless, I am definitely coming along for the ride.
Favorite Moment: Mac’s practiced cynicism breaking as her stepmother attempts suicide. That killer cliffhanger.