October is typically the month where minds are set most firmly on scares, costumes and candy. And while we in The Escapist‘s Comics and Cosplay crew all enjoyed our fair share of those, we also spent much the past weeks focusing our time and attention on reading through the comic industry’s latest releases. Not sure what to pick up now that November’s here? Let our handy suggestions guide you to the best of what the past month’s best offerings. Whether you like Star Wars, superheroes or a bit of noir, we have a little bit of everything in our list.
Heading up the charge this month is Marshall Lemon, Grey Carter and Stew Shearer.
Clean Room #1
When Chloe Pierce’s fiancee picked up a book from self-help guru Astrid Mueller, it changed his life. Three months later, he shot himself in their kitchen. Now Chloe is seeking answers, using her journalistic talents to find out everything she can about Astrid’s organization. What she keeps hearing about is the “Clean Room”, a space where Astrid’s followers are exposed to their deepest, darkest, sins. So when Chloe enters Astrid’s headquarters, that’s what she wants to see – but she may not like what she finds.
Gail Simone’s new Vertigo Comics series is already moving into dark territory. Clean Room‘s first five pages are immensely disturbing, and quickly move into themes of suicide, mental illness, and cults which take advantage of unsuspecting believers. I suspect this is a series which will leave many readers feeling uncomfortable – especially anyone who has experience with cults themselves. But it’s also incredibly compelling, especially as Chloe stands up to the Blue Utopians despite all she’s suffered personally.
I really hope this series works out for her. And I’ll be keeping an eye on future installments to find out.
Favorite Moment: “Only thing is… I have nothing left to lose, Ms. Reed.”
John Flood #3
While I’m an unapologetic mystery fiend, I admit I’m completely sick of the antisocial-weirdo-genius-and-straight-man-sidekick-solve-mysteries/crimes trope that seems to have congealed into its own genre over the past decade. I watched eight seasons of House. Eight seasons. And then there was Sherlock. And Luther. And half a dozen other imitators. If I see one more quirky crime wizard solve the mystery of the day after being inspired by a coke machine or something, I’m going to start committing murders myself. It’s odd, then, that I’m so fond of Justin Jordan’s John Flood, which plays most of the genre’s conventions stock straight.
Maybe it’s the superb linework from Jorge Coelho (Suicide Risk, Sleepy Hollow), which doesn’t have an ounce of softness to it. Instead, Coelho renders everything with thick, angular lines and heavy hatching, relying on some fantastic colour work by Tamra Bonvillain (Rat Queens, Wayward) to provide depth when simple lines won’t do the trick.
Or it could be the cool hook: John Flood hasn’t slept in ten years thanks to a shady government experiment. The process has driven him bonkers, making him your standard antisocial-weirdo, but has also given him the ability to see patterns where no sane person would, thus upgrading him to antisocial-weirdo-genius. Like most of his kind, Flood immediately takes to solving crimes, albeit seemingly on a whim and with little regard for how serious a case may be (he spends most of issue #2 searching for a woman’s lost cat). The straight man comes in the form of one Alexander Berry, a straight-cut, hulking mass of a disgraced cop, seemingly drummed out of the source for an assault gone viral that he claims he didn’t commit. What’s funny about Berry – and this is the joke that really keeps the comic flowing – is his absurd stoicism in the face of insanity. Berry is a sane man in a seemingly insane world and his simple, one-word responses to extreme situations and threats always get a laugh. He isn’t just there to provide exasperated looks every time Flood does something nuts, he’s a funny character in his own regard.
I can’t really talk about the current issue without giving away some spoilers, but it does give us more information on the series’ mysterious antagonist, an imposing Lumberjack-type whose pragmatic approach to violence and murder make him a perfect foil for Flood. We also get some much needed character development for the two leads, with both characters showing off unexpected moral centers that drive them to conflict. Great stuff.
Favorite Moment: “Just because a bad thing happened to a bad person doesn’t make it a good thing, Mr. Flood.”
The Astonishing Ant-Man #1
Prior to Secret Wars‘ universe reboot, Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man was a series that, though short-lived, impressed readers and critics alike with its wonderful sense of humor and warm-hearted story about a father trying to do right by his family. With Secret Wars coming to an end, the tale of ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang will continue in the pages of Astonishing Ant-Man, which saw the release of its debut issue this month.
It might seem an odd compliment, but the best thing I can really say about this comic is that it’s more of the same. Spencer’s writing on Ant-Man walked the perfect balance of fun and drama and if its first issue is any indicator, Astonishing Ant-Man looks like it will aim for the same tone. In the first issue alone we see Ant-Man contending his continuing struggles to be a good father as well as him battling supervillains sent to attack him by an Uber-style app aimed at giving bad guys easier access to available henchman. It’s fun and has enough dramatic gravitas to transcend just being funny. Hop on board now while the series is still new!
Favorite Moment: “How would you rate the difficulty of your super villain encounter, 1 to 10.”
Art Ops #1
“Art, like society, needs rules and regulations. It needs to be helped, saved, and if need be, brought to justice.”
That single sentence is a perfect summary of Art Ops, one of the most original comic book ideas I’ve read in recent months. Set in a universe where art is self-aware, the Art Operatives are a secret police force with two mandates: Protect art from humanity, and protect humanity from art. When someone destroys priceless paintings, Art Ops is on the case. If those paintings escape their frames and start murdering civilians, Art Ops will step in to stop them. But when the entire organization disappears without a trace, Reggie Riot is left in charge of operations – a son who wants nothing to do with his mother’s former business.
The first issue is focused mostly on Reggie’s origin story and introducing the characters, but there’s a great deal of potential here. Any famous work of art could be a potential character or villain. This first issue alone introduces the Mona Lisa, who is taking part in an art relocation program. Then you have The Body, an Art Ops agent who appears to be art himself, and spends his off-hours writing sitcoms. It all makes for a fascinating setting – realized with great art from Mike Allred – and I can’t wait to see what operations take place once the obligatory introductions are out of the way.
Favorite Moment: “But that cute boy finally asked me out!”
The Spire #4
The Spire is a classic murder mystery/political thriller dressed up as a post-apocalyptic, fantasy adventure, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
Resembling a kind of semi-organic ant hill, the titular Spire is is a gargantuan, hive-like city in the middle of ye olde post-apocalyptic toxic wasteland. The city is home to both humans and a diverse range of, seemingly bioengineered, creatures known as the “Sculpted.” The protagonist, Shå, is one of the few sculpted with any degree of authority, having overcome the city’s institutionalized xenophobia to become Commander of the City Watch. As Shå attempts to solve a series of brutal murders, she finds herself at odds with the city’s soon-to-be coronated Baroness who seems particularly bigoted against the sculpted. To complicate matters further, Shå is also in a clandestine relationship with the Baroness’ sister; she’s being hunted by other members of her species for an as-of-yet undisclosed crime she can’t remember and she has some role to play in the upcoming peace negotiations with the other cities of the wastelands. Oh, and she has, like, a ton of creepy white tentacles coming out of her back.
If that sounds complicated, it’s supposed to be. Despite its old-school sci-fi trappings, The Spire feels more like a noir murder mystery, with a jumbled web of a plot that becomes more and more dense with each issue. Shå herself is a classic mystery lead; a sarcastic gumshoe in the Sam Vimes mold. She’s savvy, cynical and angry at the world, but with enough genuinely endearing character flaws to keep her grounded. She’s grumpy, she’s snide, she hates children and she takes great pleasure in tormenting her put-upon subordinate, Milk. But she’s also very good at what she does, and watching her cut through the political and racial bullshit of the Spire as she unravels its various mysteries is just so goddamn satisfying.
I haven’t read the latest issue yet, because #4 literally came out yesterday and I’m not going to rush through it just to satisfy you peasants, but #3 is an absolute roller coaster. One of the peace envoys from the neighboring cities demands Shå’s head in exchange for renewing a treaty, the murderer appears to be deliberately pushing the cities towards war and we learn how Shå came to live in the Spire. I can’t wait for the next issue, which I will be reading… now.
Favorite Moment: Shå’s impromptu meeting with her girlfriend in a spiral staircase and its beautiful panel work. “Don’t be silly. It is written that a lady of the house Crystor-Haan may bum-squeeze whomsoever she likes.”
Sam Wilson: Captain America #2
On the off chance that you haven’t heard, there are people in the United States who are less than pleased with Sam Wilson’s latest turn as Captain America. With the series’ post-Secret Wars re-launch, Wilson has abandoned the traditionally politics-neutral stance of Captain America and, most simply put, gone partisan and picked a side. Embarking on a new quest to help people and fight against social and racial injustice, the character, both in the real world and in the book, has stirred a fair amount of controversy and earned the ire of people who would prefer Captain America’s message to remain plain and simple “freedom.”
I’m not going to opine on whether or not Wilson’s decision is right or a betrayal of the character. What I will say, however, is that this decision on the part of Marvel and writer Nick Spencer has made the first two issues of Sam Wilson: Captain America far more interesting to read than the comics that came before. Don’t get me wrong. I liked All-New Captain America and found it to be a solid book, overall. That said, it wasn’t a story that I found to be interesting outside of the moment-to-moment awesome factor of Cap punching people and hucking his shield. Wilson’s new political stance gives his version of Captain American a bit and edge that it lacked before and I like where it’s going.
Favorite Moment: “Steve Rogers, in his heart, believes that when the chips are down, when its values are at stake-his country will do what’s right…. I can only hope.”
Star Wars: Chewbacca #1 and 2
Who needs exposition when a hero can tell you everything from a look, a growl, or a well-timed blaster shot? That’s one reason why Chewbacca is such a beloved character, keeping pace with all kinds of sci-fi action heroics without having to do anything in the dialogue department. It’s his scenes in Marvel’s standalone Chewbacca mini-series that almost leave me wishing he take missions away from Han Solo more often. Almost.
Star Wars: Chewbacca takes place on an Imperial occupied planet, where a young girl and her father have just have been forced into slavery in underground mines. But when the girl escapes, she has every intention of coming back with someone who can free the entire workforce. The only problem? Everyone in the surrounding town is in the mine owner’s pocket – except for a Wookie who stopped by on a mission of his own.
He may not say much, but Chewbacca absolutely steals the action on every page – every scaring away a gang of thugs just by looking up from his soup. It does a good job of communicating that Chewbacca is an imposing figure no one should be troubling, except for this young girl with no other options. The only thing I’d like is more scenes with Chewbacca and no dialogue, although Issue 2 (also out this month) improved on that somewhat.
In short, if you want a book about Chewbacca doing what Wookies do best, you’ll enjoy this series.
Favorite Moment: “Do you know what that means? To be a slave?”
Assassination Classroom Volume 6
Are manga comics? Should they be in this list? Well, that’s a good question, gentle reader, and you should totally discuss the issue with these people who care.
The Japanese school system isn’t all its cracked up to be. Bullying is rife, and expert’s reckon that the high pressure exam season is a key contributor to the nation’s staggeringly high teenage suicide rates. Satirizing that system has always been fertile ground for great stories; from more traditional sci-fi exaggeration pieces like Battle Royale to darker, uncomfortably awkward dramas like Aku No Hana and Onani Master Kurosawa, to hopeful slapstick like Great Teacher Onizuka. Yūsei Matsui’s crazy successful Assassination Classroom is carrying on a rich legacy of biting satire.
Assassination Classroom has a pretty weird setup, even by comedy manga standards. It follows class 3-E of Kunugigaoka Junior High School, the “worst” class in the school, and its homeroom teacher, who happens to be a seemingly-indestructible, super-powered Octopus-like creature responsible for destroying 70% of the moon. “Koro Sensei,” as he’s called, has promised to destroy the earth as well, unless mankind can find a way to kill him within a year. After a number of botched attempts, that task falls to class 3-E, who are promised a ton of cash if they can successfully bag the monster. The twist is that Koro Sensei actually turns out to be a great teacher, who sets about turning the class of abandoned misfits into the most driven and successful class in the school. He also promises to teach them the skills they’ll need to assassinate him. There’s a lot of “how to stab someone 101” involved, but just as many lessons about self-worth and the importance of teamwork. Imagine Sesame Street crossed with a marine boot camp. It’s a dark concept, albeit executed with lightness and grace, but I can’t imagine a Western comic creator getting away with this kind of shit.
While the longer, more action-orientated, arcs are still funny, Assassination Classroom is at its strongest when it’s focusing on Koro Sensei teaching his students and fighting against the corrupt, elitist school system that holds them down. The obvious metaphor of a dedicated teacher going out of his way to help his students realize their individual strengths and cement their self-worth is heart-warming, even when it involves simulated murder and high explosives. Volume Six is a mixed bag in that regard. The first few chapters are great, focusing on one student struggling to balance her studies against a needy friend, but they segue into a drawn out assassination plot that eats up far too much of the volume. It does end with some much needed character development for some of the more morally dubious class-members, and there’s a ton of build up for the upcoming end of term exams. Exam arcs in Assassination Classroom are always brilliant.
Unfortunately the printed versions of Assassination Classroom are still two years behind the fan-translated versions available online. Still, the only way we’ll see more of this kind of material in the west is if we suck it up and buy official volumes when they’re released.
Favorite Moment: The meeting between the evil principal and his (evil) son where they do nothing but threaten each other and have an evil-chuckle competition.
Note: Due to a lack of online sample pages, the images below are mostly taken from Assassination Classroom’s first volume.
Star Wars: Darth Vader #11
Darth Vader has consistently been my favorite of Marvel’s Star Wars books and I think that issue 11 is a perfect exemplar of why. Stuck assisting an Imperial investigation into a crime that he committed himself Vader, in this issue and the several leading up to it, finds himself struggling to manipulate the situation to maintain his control over events while still appearing to be a useful and cooperative agent of the Empire. In issue 11 all of the recent events come to a head with a climactic battle where Vader has to make hard choices and play both sides.
What I like about this issue and the ones running up to it is how well it gets across the idea that Vader is really struggling here. While it doesn’t show on his face (nyuck nyuck nyuck), the moves he makes and the passive aggressive way he speaks in many scenes makes it clear that he’s not happy with the situation at hand. Moreover, his actions in this issue are clearly, if subtly, desperate. He uses the Force to kill an informant in the middle of a crowded firefight and, near the issue’s end, almost murders a fan favorite to keep her from being captured. It’s overall just a great issue and I’m excited to see how this storyline resolves before the cross-over Vader Down event starts up.
Favorite Moment: “Do not struggle.”
We Stand On Guard #4
As much as I’ve been enjoying We Stand On Guard, I have to admit it’s been a little light on actual robot battles lately. There’s been lots of worldbuilding, and explorations of possible sci-fi technology, but nothing to quite match the American equivalent of an AT-AT walker from Issue #1. Well, after a few issues of build-up, America is finally assaulting the Two-Four’s secret base. And it. Is. Glorious.
To be clear, I don’t mean a few dueling robots here. We’re talking hundreds of drones and Dogs of War flooding the base, wonderfully represented by Steve Skroce’s artwork. The only disappointment was that it seem to end too soon – but only because the last page implies it will continue in Issue #5. Meanwhile, Brian K. Vaughn’s worldbuilding continues as we realize American citizens might not actually support the occupation. One particular detail you might miss: The greenery surrounding the Vermont air base seems to be the only plant life for miles.
I’ll be disappointed when this mini-series ends, but issues like this are what really leave me hoping sequels will follow. Sooner rather than later.
Favorite Moment: “I am driving a 400-ton vehicle at 90 km/h! Backwards!”
Giant Days #7
Giant Days is a sequel to a hard-to-find spin-off of a webcomic you might have heard of. You should read it anyway.
Generally, when I find art I like and I want the artist I’m working with to pull from, I capture a screenshot (yeah, I mostly read digital these days, sue me) and put it in a little folder named “inspiration.” Occasionally, I come across a book I love so much I immediately buy a second copy and email it to my artist along with a note that says something along the lines of “Steal it. STEAL IT ALL.” John Allison, Lissa Treiman and Whitney Cogar’s Giant Days is one of those books.
Blah blah. Three young women at university. Blah blah. Slice of life comedy. Blah blah blah. John Allison writes really good. Blah Blah.
The art though! It’s fun, it’s expressive, it’s sexy, it’s relentlessly energetic. Treiman’s lines are bold as all hell and are brought out perfectly by Cogar’s complimentary colour flats. The expression work is perfect, and consistent to a fault. There’s never a dead panel or a blank look. The characters are always saying something, even when they’re not talking. It’s top notch stuff.
Allison’s timing and dialogue are killer, dude’s been writing pithy dialogue for, like, twenty years now, and it’s telling that even without Treiman (she was only contracted for six issues, #7 comes from the hand of Max Sarin, who is nearly as good), the jokes still land and land hard in this issue. Manic, goth, pixie, drama magnet, Esther De Groot, is definitely the star of Giant Days, but Allison has been careful not to overuse her. She’s usually the center of attention rather than the center of the story, and solid plotting lets her bounce off the other two leads in a natural way. #7 is the first issue to focus almost entirely on Esther and, yeah, it’s brilliant. It follows her over the course of a day as she desperately tries to prepare for an imminent exam. The goofy twist is that the exam is for an Introduction to New Testament Studies class she took as a joke, and it’s just one of a number of bad decisions to come back and bite her in the arse over the course of the day. The bit where she attempts to borrow notes from a group of Christian protesters outside a bar who turn out to be her vengeful classmates is my favorite moment in the series thus far.
I haven’t read Scary Go Round or the original version of Giant Days, but I certainly intend to now. This new version may be the funniest slice of life print comic since Scott Pilgrim, and I highly recommend it.
Favorite Moment: “Esther … surely this shouldn’t be a problem. English lit is a no-mark’s degree with no vocational value. Just wave your hands around a lot and “interpret.”!”
The Fade Out #10
The great thing about comics with a more limited run is that they can build a sense of tension that’s far more genuine feeling than something like a long-running superhero book where you can pretty much guarantee that certain players are always, ultimately, going to be safe. Ed Brubaker’s The Fade Out, for instance, is nearing the end of its 12 issue run and uses issue 10 to ramp up toward a conclusion that I can’t even begin to predict.
Will the good guys win justice for the murdered starlet that launched the whole story? Will wind up victims of Hollywood’s murderous corruption themselves? Will we see an ending that’s somewhere in between? I don’t have a clue how things are going to resolve and yet I’m absolutely itching to find out. Long story short, The Fade Out has been and remains one of the absolute best series on the market and if you haven’t read it you should be rushing out to buy issues 1-10 now.
Favorite Moment: “But Dottie knows that he won’t… She can see it in his eyes, before she turns away.”
All-Star Section Eight #5
There have been lots of great comics I enjoyed this month – things are heating up on Wolf, there’s a new Southern Bastards on the stands, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl returned with a hilarious new first issue. But for some reason, I kept returning to the latest issue of All-Star Section Eight. This issue opens with self-referential jokes and over DC universe parodies, only to flip the script in the last few moments and reveal that Six-Pack’s grasp on reality is more complicated than we expected.
While sleeping off one of his usual drunken stupor, Six-Pack is woken by the Phantom Stranger. But this isn’t the calm and stoic personality we’re used from DC Comics. This version of Phantom Stranger is inclined to profanity and insists on speaking entirely in rhyme and rap. Together the pair take a journey into supernatural realms, where Six-Pack learns about superhero deaths, is reintroduced to fallen friends, and – in a surprise twist – finally sees the truth behind his reemergence as a superhero.
All-Star Section Eight may have been conceived as little more than a vehicle for Garth Ennis and John McCrea to trash superheroes for another six issues. But with chapters like this hitting all the right notes, I just miss the days when DC used to give them ongoing series.
Favorite Moment: “**** yeah! Y’all listen to my schemin! Seems to be nowadays there just ain’t as much Demon –
as in days of yore! so you know what I say?
Collect them twenty dope issues by Ennis and McCrea!”
Welcome Back #2
I’ve had a raging writer boner for Christopher Sebela ever since his superb mountaineering spy thriller, High Crimes, hit shelves in 2013. Unfortunately, a big chunk of his work since then has been licensed merc work for properties I couldn’t care less about. The dude’s brilliant, but no amount of brilliant is going to get me to read a comic based on Prometheus. But an original four issue run with Critical Hit artist, Jonathan Brandon Sawyer? Yeah, I’ll take that action.
And action is what I got. Welcome Back opens with a climactic battle to the death between two samurai, before cutting to a blood drenched double page spread of violent murders committed throughout history. It then segues into it a young woman in a punky getup spilling her drink in a crowded coffee shop. It’s a bold opening, and combined with Sebela’s frequent captions (and I mean frequent, the guy loves his blabber boxes) it gets the story rolling quickly enough to give us some quality time with the comic’s lead before the bullets start flying for real. Mali Quinn is a debt-ridden 26-year-old, struggling to find a job, pay her rent and escape the legacy of her now-dead serial killer of a step-father. That’s an interesting setup for a comic on its own, but Mali is also the latest incarnation of an immortal assassin locked in an endless cycle of murder and rebirth with another immortal, Tessa. It’s a cool concept, and a lesser writer would just use it as an excuse to have cute, punky women do back flips and shoot at each other (and to be fair, Sawyer is brilliant at drawing cute punky women doing back flips and shoot at each other), but Sebela takes the idea and runs with it. We’re two issues in and Mali and Tessa haven’t even met yet, never mind exchanged bullets. Instead, Tessa is being used to explore the kind of culture a group of eternally reincarnated immortals would create, while Mali is struggling to adapt to the much looser ethical codes of immortal society.
Issue one ended with the awesome twist of Mali’s stepfather being reincarnated as a pre-teen girl, and it’s a comedic vein that’s mined deeply in the second issue. Seeing a grade schooler bounce from car to car whacking cops with a baseball bat during a car chase was just magnificent, and it contrasts beautifully with the darker, cloak-and-dagger stuff going on in Tessa’s narrative. Mali’s reunion and reconciliation with her stepfather, even if he is roughly four feet tall and wearing a ladybug backpack, is genuinely heartwarming and I hope he/she will return at some point. The issue ends on a bit of a moral cliffhanger, and I really can’t wait to see where Sebela’s going with it.
Favorite Moment: “Next time give a shout before you go demolition derby.” “Sorry, dad.”
Conan the Avenger #19
Conan is a character that I enjoy in no small part because of how simply he’s often able to solve seemingly complex problems. In so many stories about him, written by Robert E. Howard and others, you encounter characters who look at the tough situations they’re presented with and despair because they can’t even begin to comprehend how to resolve it. Conan meanwhile, is usually more than happy to just try hitting things. He’s like a cliché a tabletop RPG player. If it has stats, he’ll find a way to kill it.
Conan the Avenger 19 has one of the best instances of this I can recall from recent memories. Pit up against a released god, Conan and his allies are desperately trying to find a way to defeat it. With nothing coming together, Conan suggests that they just “hit whatever attacks us, man or beast, until it dies.” Everyone, of course, rolls their eyes at the Cimmerian. Then, later on, when it finally looks like they’re all doomed, Conan saves the day by finding something important looking and, as he suggested, hitting it really hard with his sword. The monster dies and Conan gives a smirk that’s worth the price of admission.
Favorite Moment: “Hit whatever attacks us, man or beast, repeatedly, until it dies.”