Saturday, August 13, 2011

Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for 08/10/11

It's time for yet another exciting edition of the Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews!  A wonderful week of comics made for some wonderful comics to read through.  This time around, we have a number of beginnings and endings, with many of the comics I'm looking at either just starting or coming to the conclusion of their runs.  So hit the jump to read my thoughts on Baltimore: The Curse Bells #1, Detective Comics #881, Spider Island: Cloak and Dagger #1, and more!

Written by Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden
Art by Ben Stenbeck

Mike Mignola writes good comics. This is true of Hellboy. This is true of B.P.R.D. And it's certainly true of Baltimore. A relative new entry to the comic book medium, with the first mini-series appearing last year, Baltimore actually first saw the light of day as novel published in 2007 written by Mignola and Christopher Golden (the writers for this and the previous comic book volume as well). The story is set in a world where a mysterious plague killed many and brought a premature end to the First World War. At the same time (and perhaps related), vampires appeared, slaughtering many and multiplying in numbers. The protagonist is Lord Baltimore, an Englishman who is fighting the vampire menace and who is currently hunting the vampire known as Haigus, who just so happens to have killed Baltimore's entire family.

It's a pretty compelling concept, and it translates into an equally compelling comic book. Mignola and Golden have scripted an excellent opening issue, which manages to bring new readers up to speed while also jumping directly into some action. The book begins with Baltimore hot on Haigus's trail, investigating a town recently attacked by the vampire and his minions. The scene is very well-paced, moving at an appropriate speed to build suspense and provide some chilling reveals.

Of course, Ben Stenbeck, the series' artist, must be given his fair share of credit for this accomplishment. He makes great use of panel layout and focus, as well as page ordering, to develop the proper mood and atmosphere for each scene. He achieves a great deal through what he shows in each panel, but what he chooses to omit is equally impressive. In a number of instances, he leaves moments unshown, letting the reader picture what happened. It is really well done and shows some impressive degree of restraint to leave those moments in the gutter.

The successes of both writers and artist hold true for the remainder of the issue, where Baltimore arrives at a second, more alive town continuing to seek Haigus's location. While this portion of the book is a bit more focused on exposition, providing an idea of where the rest of the series will be headed, it all reads quite well. The story offers just enough information to whet the reader's appetite, and it also throws in a quality fight scene towards the end to spice things up.

Verdict - Buy It. This series emanates style, creating, in a single issue, a desolate and despairing Europe that is besieged by a menace that few believe in and even fewer can face. Each and every word and image have obviously been selected with care, and they all add up to build a tale that I'm eager to follow.

Written by Bryan Q. Miller
Art by Pere Perez

Batgirl has been an absolutely amazing series.  While most Bat-books right now could be compared to Batman Begins or The Dark Knight in terms of their tone, Batgirl has much more in common with Batman: The Animated Series.  Instead of the grim and gritty Gotham City that everyone seems so keen on presenting, Bryan Q. Miller has offered an interpretation of the city and its denizens that has been peppy, upbeat, and most of all, fun.  Twenty pages is not a lot of space to conclude an entire series, but Miller and Perez do their darndest to make it work, packing in more than I would have thought possible in their concluding issue.

The story opens on the revelation from the last issue that Stephanie's father, the Cluemaster, is not only still alive, but has been orchestrating most of the trouble that she has been dealing with of late.  Miller makes excellent use of the confrontation between father and daughter to emphasize how much Stephanie has matured over the course of these twenty-four issues.  Cluemaster appeals to the daughter he knew, and while his words may have rattled the Stephanie Brown we met in Batgirl #1, the woman she's become is too strong to be thrown of by his machinations.  The whole sequence is incredibly well-done, and is a nice pay off after watching Stephanie grow throughout the series.

While Cluemaster's appearance helps to show how Stephanie has grown, the book also gives ample time to the figures who have helped Stephanie along in her development, her mother and Barbara Gordon.  Both of these scenes are also executed incredibly well, providing closure for difference aspects of Stephanie's character development.  Additionally, there are some quick moments to payoff earlier interactions between Stephanie and Nell and Stephanie and Damian.  This is an issue rife with character work, and Miller nails each and every interaction.  He understands who Stephanie Brown is and what she is about, and this comes through in every moment of this issue as he wraps up the story he's been telling these last two years.

A large part of his success in accomplishing this is due to the inclusion of the Black Mercy flower, a piece of comic book horticulture that was originally introduced into DC continuity with Alan Moore's brilliant "For the Man Who Has Everything" Superman story.  For those unfamiliar with the tale, the Black Mercy is a flower that allows someone to see and experience their deepest desires.  Bringing this element into the story was a stroke of storytelling genius that supported the story's themes, helped move the plot forward in an organic manner, and allowed Miller and Perez to offer glimpses into some of the stories that they didn't have a chance to tell.  This last point deserves some attention, because the creative team spends six pages of their twenty page comic looking at these "what if" stories.  Perez absolutely kills these pages, telling a different, complete story on each and every page, looking at potential futures that Stephanie has ahead of her.  There's little to no dialogue for these images, yet the story on each page is crystal clear.  Perez's work is great throughout the issue, but it really shines in these brilliant moments.

Verdict - Buy It. Unfortunately, with Batgirl #24, we find ourselves with yet another fantastic series that will not be surviving the September DC reboot, but Miller and Perez are kind enough to give us a solid concluding issue that manages to warp up the current story arc, tie up most loose ends, and provide a satisfying end to a series that leaves us too soon.  This is an outstanding issue filled with fantastic character from start to end.  The last page is perhaps the best conclusion I've ever read to a series, with a knowing wink to the audience that comes off as entirely genuine.

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock & Francesco Francavilla

While I praised Batgirl for its more positive portrayal of Gotham City, that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the darker side that the city has to offer. The most recent run of Detective Comics is perhaps the best example of this, as the book has almost been hard to read at times due to how dark and depraved it is. And that is not a complaint. Snyder, Jock, and Francavilla have been setting the world on fire with their excellent work on the title, providing one of the bleakest interpretations of Gotham I've encountered, while also somehow managing to provide slivers of hope throughout their narrative. Although Snyder gets to keep playing with Batman come September, Jock and Francavilla are done with the Caped Crusader for the foreseeable future, so this is the team's swan song.

And what a song it is. These guys seem to really "get" each other, and their work benefits from their ability to work so well together. Fortunately, DC seems to have recognized this, giving the team thirty pages to finish up their run on the title. And they make excellent use of the space. Jock's artwork bookends the issue, setting up and paying off the mood of the title, while Francavilla fills up the pages in between with some truly terrifying art that I couldn't help but cringe at. Their styles are incredibly distinct and go a long way to emphasizing the differences of mood in their respective sections of the book.

The entire issue has an overriding sense of horror and dread. When Jock is on art duties, his beautiful, yet comparatively sparse, style gives the impression that those feelings are just below the surface, almost invisible yet ever-present. However, when Francavilla takes the reins, his dark and sinister style enables the nightmares to become real, impossible to avoid. It's a testament to each man's individual talents that they can accomplish these feats with such apparent ease. Together they are truly greater than their individual parts, making for a comic replete with intensely disturbing imagery. It's both terrifying and impressive.

Of course, Snyder does his fair share in bringing his horror A-game. The story that he composes here and the way he paces it is near perfect. There is a sense throughout the issue that no one is safe and that anyone could fail, and it makes for a great read. This book is hard to put down, although sometimes you really want to. Snyder writes some genuinely troubling scenes, yet manages to achieve this without the book feeling exploitative. What's more, just when you think that things can't get more intense, Snyder somehow finds a way to ratchet up the horror, bringing things to a new level. And he doesn't do it once or twice, he seems to do it again and again from beginning to end. I can't imagine how his mind works, but I'm glad it does, because this is a rock solid comic book and one of the best Batman stories I've had the pleasure of reading.

Another important reason for the book's success is Snyder's excellent character work. The reader worries for the character's safety because we care about who these people are and what happens to them. Snyder has been doing some skillful work throughout the series, and this issue is no exception. I continue to maintain that he is one of the few writers who can actually write Dick Grayson as Batman, and he proves that here. The way the situation with the Gordons, and with James in particular, has developed could only be done with Dick under the cowl. His approach to solving the problem and the fears he faces while doing so are very distinct from how Bruce would manage things, which is refreshing. Too often writers seem to just write Batman as if the person wearing the mask has not changed, which is frustrating to no one.

However, Dick isn't the only character that shines in this issue. The Gordons play an integral role, and while Jim and Barbara have some quality moments throughout, I would risk saying that James Jr. steals the show. His actions and reactions throughout the issue are the driving force of the story and provide most of the narrative's horror and creepiness. Snyder has done an excellent job revealing the character little by little and developing him into the sociopath that we so clearly see on display in these pages.

Verdict - Must Read. This is a great conclusion to a phenomenal run on Detective Comics. The creative team successfully manages to create a sense of terror that I didn't think was possible in comic books. My only complaint about this series is that it's done. While Snyder's continuing Batman work should be well-worth reading, I will miss having Jock and Francavilla along for the ride.

Written by Shane Houghton
Art by Chris Houghton

Full disclosure: I love all-ages comics and honestly believe that the industry needs more of these types of books. I think it's a shame that so many seem to feel that comics are for adults nowadays.  As far as I can see, there is no reason that comic books can't be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and I think that publishers should be making a bigger effort to create materials that can appeal to all demographics. Additionally, I often find that stories written with all audiences in mind are better all around stories, so I'm always happy to find titles of this kind.

I'm pleased to report that I believe Reed Gunther to be an excellent example of this. As I mentioned on Tuesday, this is a new series from Image  that stars the eponymous cowboy, Reed Gunther, and his trusty steed and best friend, Sterling, who is a bear. Thus far the series has been about the wacky adventures the two have been getting up to, and with the two leads being a cowboy and a bear, you better believe that those adventures are pretty wacky.

And that's one of my favourite things about this book thus far - it is lighthearted and doesn't take itself too seriously. The most important thing for this comic seems to be having fun. At its most basic level, Reed Gunther is a story of high adventure, and most everything that happens serves that end goal. It is a comic with its fair share of action, suspense, and conflict (including a quality fight on top of a moving train in this issue), but it also has lots of humour, character development, and interesting ideas sprinkled throughout. There has been a definite paranormal bent within the book, and it's been used very creatively, with a lot of the monsters fitting perfectly into this type of Wild West setting.

Another important factor in this book's favour is that it is incredibly approachable. Although this is the third issue in the series, most everything the reader needs to know to understand what's going on is explained during the course of the story. Indeed, apart from the main plot that features Reed, Sterling, and their new companion Starla chasing the dastardly Mr. Picks and the monsters he has stolen, there are a number of related subplots going on at the same time, but these are presented just as clearly and are easy to follow. That being said, it's not always evident why things might be happening (there is withheld information for dramatic reasons and so forth), but everything feels like it is happening for a reason, and it makes for some good reading.

The art plays a big role in this, as the character designs are all extremely well-done. The monster that appears on the cover of this issue is perhaps the best example of this concept.  The majority of the story takes place on a train travelling across the United States, and the monster appears to be composed entirely of the materials used to build the rail road (including metal spikes, wooden planks, nails, and so forth). It is a clever and well-executed idea that is incredibly appropriate considering the rest of the story. The book has a very cartoony style, meaning that character designs are exaggerated and are often representative in some way of individual character traits. For example, Reed is strong, but a bit of an oaf, so he is a burly figure who looks like a bit of a goof. The world is made up of larger-than-life characters, which perfectly compliments the lager-than-life story.

Verdict - Check It. If you, like me, enjoy quality storytelling, regardless of its intended audience, give this book a look. And if you know of any young children who like comics, you should get them a copy, because there simply aren't enough comics being written for younger audiences right now, and when something this good is coming out with them in mind, they deserve to get their hands on it.

Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Emma Rios

Wow.  I came into this issue knowing that Nick Spencer can write some good stories and that Emma Rios could draw some pretty pictures, but I had no idea that they would work so well together.

Before this issue dropped, despite the creative team, I was on the fence.  What pushed me to deciding to check it out was reading somewhere (possibly Nick Spencer's Twitter?) that Cloak and Dagger was going to be a true "couple comic".  Not knowing exactly what that meant, I had to give the book a look.  Now that I've gone through it, I can tell you that is the prefect description for this comic.  It really is about these two characters, who they are, and who they are to each other.

This is clear from the three-page opening sequence that provides the backstory to Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson.  The sequence is expertly handled, with Rios providing three pages of interweaving images that say just as much, if not more, than the captions.  The style she uses here is like what I've seen from her before, but it is also tailored to fit the characters.  The images are all inter-connected, weaving there way across the page in a way that evokes the powers of our titular heroes.  At the same time,  Spencer provides strong voices to the two characters from the very beginning.  Throughout Rios' images are dueling captions boxes (white for Tandy and black for Tyrone) that immediately show who the characters are and the strong relationship that they share.  The written and artistic choices develop the characters more in these three pages than some comics manage in an entire issue.

Spencer's writing is strong throughout the book, giving us some interesting and realistic situations for Tandy and Tyrone to try to deal with.  But for everything they do, the relationship between the two is really the emphasis of the narrative.  Spencer manages to write a believable depiction of a young couple struggling with their own issues while also working to understand their partner's problems.  The parallelism that he creates between the two is especially strong, showing both how close the two are and also how far apart they can sometimes be.  The two-page spread where Tandy and Tyrone are contemplating how they've been doing lately as a couple is especially moving, providing some dramatic irony where the reader comes to understands perfectly what neither character can quite manage to wrap their heads around at this point.

Without selling Spencer short, I must say that Rios is the star of this book.  Every page is stunning and unique, and everything on the page feels like it is there to serve the story.  I'm not quite sure how to describe it, but her style is gorgeous.  As strange as it might sound, I want to say that her style is both clear and indistinct, tight and loose.  The detail she puts into every panel is astounding, something that is especially true for Tandy and Tyrone.  I didn't realize what it was the first time I read through the issue, but Tandy is constantly surrounded by bright, star-like dots, which are representative of the power inside her.  Of course, Tyrone has a similar set of darkness that follows him around.  They're both small things, but their addition adds a lot to the final product.  Rios draws in a way that few others do, and her style is perfectly fitted for this book.

Verdict - Must Read.  Spencer's sense of the characters seems to already be fully developed, and his use of parallelism throughout the comic works really well.  Rios's art is simply mind blowing.  The layouts she uses in the issue are innovative and equally true to who the characters are (I'm thinking particularly of the first three pages and the two-page spread towards the end).  The way they work together makes it feel like they've been collaborating for years and not a single issue.  This book should become an ongoing immediately and you owe it to yourself to get in on the ground floor.  You won't be disappointed.

Some mighty fine comics coming across my desk this week.  It was a particularly strong comic book day, to be certain.  And these are only a small sample of what I went through this week.  Did you happen to catch any of these books?  If so, what did you think of them?  If not, are you planning on giving them a look?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on these, and any other comics you read, below in the comments!

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