Archive for November, 2015

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So — here it is. The conclusion (that’s no longer a conclusion) to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns epic that, at least according to DC’s promotional blurbs, “you never saw coming.” Probably because after The Dark Knight Strikes Again! most people really didn’t want to see another installment in this saga coming, but hey — we’ve got one anyway. And now that we do, I’m honestly shocked at how little the finished product differs from the admittedly dim impression I had of it in my head back when it was first announced that they were going back to this well one more time.

Before we get to that, though, I have a few things to say about how we got here — and even where we’re going from here — so let’s take care of all that first, shall we?

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The word “legendary” is, of course, a horribly overused one these days, but 1986’s Batman : The Dark Knight Returns was just that. I’m operating under the assumption that most readers of this review don’t need any sort of briefing on either what it was or the long-lasting effects it had on the superhero comic medium, but even if you do, sorry — you’re not going to get it here. All I’m going to say is that its reputation is well-deserved and that, yes, it really is at least as good as everyone’s always said it is.

Where I do part company with conventional wisdom, though, is in my absolute love for its 2001 sequel, the already-mentioned The Dark Knight Strikes Again! Yes, it’s every bit as haphazard, frenetic, tonally all-over-the-place, and gleefully sadistic as its detractors claim, but what of it? No less an authority than cartoonist extraordinaire James Kochalka has said that DK2, as its more commonly known, reads like it’s the creation of “a 12-year-old kid who knows he can make a better comic than Frank Miller,” and I can’t really think of higher praise than that. This book positively crackles with youthful recklessness and exuberance from the outset and never lets up, despite the fact that its author apparently suffered something of a guilt-related mental breakdown halfway through its creation due to the fact that in the second issue he showed Batman flying a plane into the LexCorp tower and, just a few months later, a handful of terrorists went and did much the same thing in the real world. Miller became a strident Islamophobic jackass after that, as evidenced not only by his decidedly racist and xenophobic graphic novel Holy Terror (which actually started out as a Batman comic until he decided to replace the Caped Crusader with a stand-in character of his own devising), but also by a good number of inflammatory statements he made about Muslims in various interviews at the time of the book’s release — but guess what? Those reactionary views don’t impinge on DK2‘s conclusion in any way and, if you go back and read the third and final issue of that series again, you’ll see that it’s actually one of the most bombastic critiques of the Bush administration and its then-newly-launched “War On Terrorism” to ever see print in any “entertainment” medium. The book had a “rap” for being a glorification of fascism and some of the ugly right-wing conceits at the heart of vigilantism in general, but you know what? The same is true of The Dark Knight Returns, only that takes itself waaaaaaayyyyy more fucking seriously. The entire Dark Knight series is politically and socially problematic, and actively relishes its own confrontationalism, but only the sequel seems to get accused of engaging in that sort of brusque artistic brow-beating, and this despite the fact that Miller’s worst excesses all came to light well after its release. I’m just gonna come right out and say it, and you can reserve my padded cell for me anytime, I guess : I’ll take DK2 over its more-celebrated predecessor any day of the week. To me, it’s the closest thing we’ll ever have to an “underground” Batman comic and yeah, while it’s definitely a much “uglier” and less “professional”-looking book in a visual sense, it’s absolutely bristling with righteous creative zeal that can’t be faked. Rumor has it that DC paid Miller a million dollars to do it, and he took their money, unzipped his fly, and pissed right in their face. Why do so many people have such a hard time respecting that?dkiii-p1-157314

Still, one thing I think we can all agree on is that a natural assumption was made at the end of DK2 that the story was over. If you liked the book, chances are that you figured Miller had said everything he had to say about the future “Batman Universe” he’d created, and if you’re among the majority who didn’t just dislike, but flat-out loathed it, you probably guessed that there was just no freaking way DC would even allow him anywhere near a Dark Knight project again.

As it turns out, everyone was wrong. Sort of.

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As you can see from the two pages reproduced above, the editorially-directed (by Miller and his publisher’s own admission) Dark Knight III : The Master Race looks as different to its two forebears as Strikes Again! did to Returns, and there’s a damn good reason for this — yes, DC’s gone back to the world he initially envisioned, but our guy Frank is only on hand as a ” story consultant” of sorts/very part-time artistic helping hand, and the art on this new eight-part series is being handled by penciller Andy Kubert, original Dark Knight inker Klaus Janson, and colorist Brad Anderson, with the scripting being entrusted to Brian Azzarello. Most folks have made the reasonable inference that this is due to Miller’s obviously-failing health, but with his recent announcement that there is, in fact, going to be a Dark Knight 4 that he intends to write and draw himself, I’m of the opinion that he’s actually sort of outfoxed his own bosses here.

Consider : Miller signs off on the idea of a Dark Knight III and even agrees to draw a couple of the near-infinite number of variant covers (his is reproduced as the second image in this review, while Jim Lee’s 500-to-1 variant is shown below) adorning the comics (as well as the first of the Dark Knight Universe Presents mini-comics being glued inside each issue, this one starring The Atom) in order to appear to give the project even more of his imprimatur. Why not? He knows damn well, from observing the Before Watchmen debacle, that DC’s gonna go ahead with this with or without his blessing, and he also knows that they really don’t want him doing it. They’re just too chickenshit. How, then, to make sure that he really does get to do another Dark Knight book, and to do it his way? Piggy-back onto this project, give it his full-throated blessing, deposit DC/Warner’s check,  and then announce that his involvement on it has actually been quite minimal and that he’s got his own fourth installment in the works. What’s DC gonna do at that point? Tell him “no”? They literally can’t. And so, by appearing to go along with their game, he actually got them right where he wanted them. Well played, Mr. Miller, well played.

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All of which relegates the provocatively-titled Dark Knight III : The Master Race (a name, it should be said, whose significance is in no way even hinted at, much less explained, in this first issue) to something of a stop-gap measure, or the story that takes place in between “real” Dark Knight stories. And maybe that’s just as well, because this seems to be a very un-ambitious comic that exists merely to fit into some dull editorial remit to create a book that picks up after DK2 while aping the feel of DK1. As far as the art goes, it appears that Kubert was given a bit more leeway to illustrate things in his own style, but the cover (as seen at the top of this review) certainly looks like it could have come right out of Miller’s Sin City, and the interior pages show a much sleeker, more noir-influenced look than we’ve seen from him in the past. It’s probably fair to suppose that the orders from on high were something along the lines of “don’t copy Frank’s style per se, but make sure that whatever you do fits in with the look of the first Dark Knight series.” And so it does.

As does Azzarello’s story, but here things get a bit dicier, because this really does read like a pale approximation of The Dark Knight Returns done by a lesser talent. We’ve got some nods to the current social media landscape thrown in from the outset,  and a few knowing glances are cast in the direction of mass movements like Black Lives Matter in that police brutality seems to be the issue that brings the once-again-retired-Dark Knight back to the streets of Gotham (a topic the same author explored in a recent fill-in issue on the main Batman title), but everything here really is piggybacking onto events in the 1986 original moreso than it’s taking its cues from the modern world. Azzarello tries to mimc some of the “Batman is back” excitement of the first issue of DK1, but it feels rushed and incomplete in terms of the buildup involved and so largely falls flat, and the same can certainly be said of the double-page spread of TV talking heads that you just knew was gonna be in here someplace. The subplots involving Wonder Woman and her infant son, and that of  her teenage daughter (with Superman, don’t forget!) Lara seem marginally more interesting, but no sooner do we get some brief exposure to them than we find ourselves thrust back into the “A” narrative and see the GCPD violently bringing Batman down after he proves to be a sensation on twitter and shit. His final (for this issue, at any rate) confrontation with the cops comes the closest of anything in this opening installment to delivering that old-school DK wallop, and no doubt the presence of Janson on inks helps to authenticate some of the more blatant, but successful, stylistic thievery that Kubert finally succumbs to in this penultimate sequence, but it still isn’t quite the “real deal,” nor is it clever and/or totally shameless enough to let you forget it. The unmasking of Batman provides for a doozy of a cliffhanger, sure, but even that’s not all that terribly surprising once the initial wave of “holy shit!”-ness subsides. Come to think of it, one could argue that it succeeds largely because you do, in fact, “see it coming,” but it’s so fucking cool that you’re willing to go along with it because it steers a story you never really wanted to see anyway into a direction that you could potentially be  happy to have it going. One brief heads-up, though : don’t read the mini-comic either first, or in the middle of the book as its presented, because it gives the ending of the main story away completely. DC probably should have glued the thing into the back rather than the center of the comic, just in case, but  given that they’ve sort of made lousy decision-making into an art form over there in recent years,  what else could you really expect?

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Speaking of the mini-comics — and the physical format of the series in general — Miller’s caught a lot of heat for showing “Superman’s junk” on the cover (shown above) for Dark Knight Universe Presents The Atom, and why not? It really is a lousy piece of illustration, any way you slice it. But his art on the interior pages — which sees him paired with Janson for the first time since DK1 — is actually surprisingly good in the strictest formal sense of the term, and when you combine that with the fact that the script for this little “side-step,” revolving as it does around a mystery of sorts developing within the Bottle City of Kandor, is actually fairly interesting, you could make a pretty strong case for the notion that the mini-comic is, in actuality, the best thing about Dark Knight III : The Master Race #1. In fact, I believe I did just that. I’ve gotta be honest, though — the old “Dark Knight format,” as it used to be called, gave you a lot more bang for your buck than the 32-pages-for-$5.99 thing that they’re putting this new series out in. Yeah, you get a glossy cover and there are no ads, but it’s still a standard stapled format rather than the squarebound binding of old, and while the paper’s good and all, it’s not nearly as good as we’re used to in a Dark Knight comic.

These problems, of course, will all be corrected in two weeks, when the so-called “deluxe edition” is released that consists of a hardcover version of the comic with the mini-comic “blown up” to full size, but the $12.99 price point for a re-packaged version of a comic that just came out 14 days previously shows what a naked cash-grab this whole enterprise really is. I mentioned DC’s other notorious naked cash-grab of recent vintage, Before Watchmen, previously, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that both the writer and artist on Dark Knight III : The Master Race are “alums,” if you will, of that cynical, year-long, slow-motion disaster. I’m not ready to say that their newest project is anywhere near as artistically worthless and morally deplorable as BW was — and despite the breezy, thowaway nature of the first 3/4 of this issue, the ending gives me at least a shred of hope that we might be in for an interesting, if hopelessly derivative, time here — but who knows? It’s early days yet, and they could still surprise me with the depth of their creative bankruptcy. Their publisher, however, no longer can, and the sad truth is that the mere existence of a Dark Knight III proves that DC not only has nothing left in the tank, but has given up altogether on even trying to convince us otherwise. Having spent 20-plus years trying — and failing — to find the “next Dark Knight” and the “next Watchmen,” they appear more than happy to simply snatch up the last few dollars an ever-dwindling readership is willing to fork over to watch them kick the corpses of their once-greatest triumphs.

 

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Next (and last) in our little “Netflix Halloween Hangover” mini-round-up we have 2014’s Kristy, a flick that, like Bound For Vengeance, plays upon the “damsel in distress” theme, but unlike it, does so more from the traditional angle of trying to prevent something bad from happening rather than showing us nothing but events that play out well after most of the shit’s already hit the fan (also, like that film, it was added to the Netflix streaming queue with scant hours to go before Halloween itself was over, so I think I can be forgiven for getting this review in a bit “late,” as it were). Care to guess if I liked this one any better?

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Anchored by a very strong lead performance from Haley Bennett and the taut, suspenseful direction of Oliver Blackburn, Kristy is an almost unbearably tense affair that, admittedly, takes some time to get going, but really fires on all cylinders once it does, with the “slower” opening act coming in useful at that point insofar as we find that we’ve  actually become invested in our heroine as a person rather than a cipher, and therefore her struggle for survival actually matters to us one it’s underway.

That’s a neat trick. More horror directors should try it.

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The deal, then, is this : college freshman Justine (Bennett) is a hard-working kid paying her own way through school and therefore has to remain on campus over Thanksgiving break to earn much-needed cash at her part-time gig. Her boyfriend, Aaron (played by Lucas Till) is headed home to visit family, but no matter — she’ll still have roommate Nicole (Erica Ash) around to keep her company. Wait, though — Nicole just got a last-minute invitation from her well-to-do father to join him in Aspen for the holiday, so it looks like Justine’s gonna have to fly solo, after all. Her temporarily-reduced social status sees her having to stock up on supplies at a convenience store  late one evening when it turns out that every place else in town is closed, and there she makes the unwelcome acquaintance of a young lady named Violet (Ashley Green) , who graduates from talking cryptic to being downright threatening within the space of a few short minutes. To say that this encounter leaves our protagonist feeling a bit shaken is an understatement of fairly massive proportions.

Tell you what, though, if you think she’s scared now, wait until she finds out that Violet has tailed her back to her empty-as-a-tomb dorm, complete with three masked men in tow, and that they’re all members of some kind of wannabe-Satanic cult that just so happens to be in the market for young, tender flesh to either corrupt, sacrifice, or maybe even both —

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This is definitely one you want to see, friends. And you might even want to go all old-school and turn the lights out and shit. Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski’s script is sparse but solid and in the capable hands of Blackburn, the right notes are hit at precisely the right times. If you want good, edge-of-your-seat stuff — and who doesn’t? — then you’re in fora real treat here. There’s intrigue, danger, genuine scares, and the setting is used to maximum effect. No trickery or gimmickery here, just “Horror Movie 101” fundamentals the way they’re supposed to be, and while there’s plenty more I could give away about Kristy — including the significance of the title — I’m just going to shut up and let you get to it. After all, why read about it when you could actually be watching it instead?

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I guess it’s fair to say that this review and the next are coming to you as an act of “digital housekeeping,” if you will, in that I meant to include them as part of my “Netflix Halloween 2015” round-up, but sadly ran out of time. So, in the spirit of “better late than never,” I present to you a (very) short addendum to last month’s over-arching theme that we’ll call “Netflix Halloween Hangover” simply because, hey, it’s a Sunday evening and I can’t really think of any snappier title than that. My apologies.

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First under the microscope we have 2015’s Bound For Vengeance, which was also released in various overseas territories under the decidedly uninspired (if understandable) title of Reversal, a flick that bills itself as turning the tables on classic “rape/revenge” horror “thrillers” but that really does nothing of the sort because, well — when you consider that films like I Spit On Your Grave are all about turning the tables on one’s captors/assailants, the only way you can really do a reversal (sorry) on that would be to have the bad guy (or guys) win. And nobody wants that.

What director Jose Manuel Cravioto does here is more a “remix” of the formula than an outright re-thinking, then,  in that he starts things off with his protagonist, Eve (played by Russian actress and Jennifer Lawrence look-alike Tina Ivlev) smashing a brick over the head of her sicko basement-jailer, Phil (Richard Tyson), and making a break for it. She could — and probably should — go to the cops, but it turns out that the house she was being held captive in is in he middle of fucking nowhere, her cell phone is dead (she’s apparently been cooped up for several months), and besides — on her hurried way out the door she discovers evidence that she wasn’t the only one being imprisoned as a sex slave, and she’d like to bust the other girls out, as well.

Her first couple of rescue attempts go pretty badly when the ladies in question prove to be extremely far-gone mentally, and screenwriters Rock Shaink Jr. and Keith Kjornes come up with some seriously brutal endings for this pair of hapless souls when their plot utility ends, but the third time proves to be the charm, and while “contestant #3” makes tracks for the nearest cop shop, Eve heads back to Phil’s spread one more time in order to dole out some final justice. Or so she thinks, at any rate —

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I’m generally a fan of the “rape/revenge” subgenre,  but if you’ve been reading this site for any length of time odds are that you knew that already, or at the very least could have surmised as much, and while I  appreciate the fact that Cravioto was going for something a bit different, at least stylistically, here by omitting the atrocities and drawing out/complicating the payback, the simple fact is that without bearing witness to the evil of the antagonist in at least semi-explicit, if not outright excruciating, detail, his inevitable comeuppance loses a lot of the fist-pump-in-the-air sense of jubilation that should be part and parcel of any story like this. We’re glad he’s gonna get his, sure — but only glad. And I’d personally rather be straight-up overjoyed, myself.

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A fairly major criticism, no doubt about it, but not one that entirely negates the  things that Bound To Vengeance actually does have going for it, like a stellar lead performance from Ivlev and an interesting visual conceit, beginning with the brick in the opening scene, that sees events related from the “point of view,” if you will, of various inanimate objects that Eve makes use of throughout the film. Truth be told, though, even that begins to grate after awhile — but not nearly as much as the constant feeling that this is a film that could be so much better than what it is. Some cinematic formulas are “tried and true” for good reason, and not only do they in no way, shape, or form need revisionist-style tinkering for its own sake, their impact is diminished greatly by its most unwelcome presence.

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Welcome to the not-so-distant future , where a biological attack has rendered the entire American population, both male and female, incapable of having children. Sounds like the invitation to start a 40-or 50-year party to me, but let’s face it — in a nation where siring offspring is seen by most as some sort of God-given right, it wouldn’t take long for the entire population to have a massive freak-out. And to start looking elsewhere for little angels to call their own —

So goes the intriguing premise behind newcomer (at least to my knowledge) writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson and artist Matthew Dow Smith (geez, guys, I love ya both, but remember when people just went by their first and last names?)’s new four-part Boom! Studios min-series, Last Sons Of America, and while there’s definitely a distinct Children Of Men influence on the proceedings here, the idea that the “sterility plague” in this book is only affecting one country — and that said country just so happens to be the most powerful one on Earth — definitely alters the “no future for us, I guess” framework for the ( in my view,  at any rate) better, by opening up rather obvious possibilities for commentary on imperialism and the like. After all, it was bad enough when we just wanted your oil, but when we start coming for your kids, too, well — all bets are off.

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Enter brothers Jackie (the ethically challenged one) and Julian (the one with at least some conscience remaining), two guys employed in the booming “adoption” business who have traveled to a particularly impoverished region of Nicaragua (the only factory in town having just shuttered) in order to “offer” dirt-poor parents the “chance” to “give” their children a “better” life by selling them off to well-to-do American couples desperate to hear the patter of tiny feet in their homes. Our pair of protagonists are essentially brokers or middle-men in this perverse economic equation, but when their latest “extraction” (that’s it for the scare-quotes, I promise) goes south, Jackie decides to resort to more direct means for obtaining his flesh-and-blood wares. Folks in his line of work, of course, are able to justify this sort of off-the-books appropriation as rescuing youngsters from a life of poverty and hardship (even if they don’t bother getting the kids’ — or their parents’ — consent), but you and I have no need for such pleasantries and can still call kidnapping exactly what it is.

There’s just one problem with Julian’s brilliant idea, though — he’s unknowingly snatched the last child in town that any person who went in with an actual plan would have, and now both brothers are well and truly fucked.

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The term “world-building” is a highly overused one in our media-saturated culture, but Johnson does a bang-up job of it here and sets the stage for what promises to be a highly immersive, if decidedly queasy at times, read. We get a solid handle on our main characters quickly, the desperation on the locale they’ve descended upon is palpable, and we even manage to piece together a pretty workable outline as to on the operational set-up of the region’s socio-economic power structure, both above-board and otherwise. Deliver all of this to us by way of  sharp, authentic dialogue that engages in only a minimal amount (really just a page or so) of “info-dumping,” (whoops, there goes my promise) , move events along at a brisk but far from overwhelming pace, and you’ve got a winner of a story on your hands.

Contrary to what some critics would have you believe, though, comics ain’t all about word bubbles and caption boxes, and Smith’s art might just be real star of the show here. It’s moody, atmospheric, and very pleasing to the eye indeed, and aided by the well-balanced colors of Doug Garbark, the overall aesthetic conveyed is a unique combination of stylish and grimy. You can feel the dirt from the Nicaraguan village getting right under your skin, but you’re not in any big hurry to wash it off. Wrap the package up with a suitably art deco-influenced cover by Tonci Zonjic and a really cool logo complete with an eager, squiggly little sperm, and the end result is a comic book with a singular — and successful — visual philosophy throughout.

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Chances are that your LCS went pretty light on their orders for this one given that it comes to us via less-than-well-established creators working for an independent publisher (I think my store got six copes total), so you may want to make tracks over there and grab up this first issue while you still can — or have them order one up for you from Diamond if it’s already gone. There’s not any burning need to wait for the inevitable trade here given that it’s just a four-parter, and picking it up in singles probably won’t cost you considerably more (if anything), either, so hey — if this sounds like your cup of tea, you may as well jump on board now.

I’m hesitant as hell to employ worn-out adages like “this is a book that deserves your support,” but damn if that’s not precisely the case. Last Sons Of America is flying distinctly beneath the majority of the comics-buying public’s radar screen, so if you do buy it and like it, do your part to spread the word — it would be nice to see these fresh, talented creators be able to pay their rent for at least a few months with income earned from this project, and to subsequently decide that comics is a business that they’d like to stick around in for the foreseeable future.

 

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Ever since the first solicits for the new seven-part mini-series Superman : American Alien started showing up several months ago, I’ve been unsure what to make of the whole enterprise — sure, the line-up of talent involved is impressive, particularly on the artistic side, but do we really need another re-telling of The Man Of Steel’s origin? And, furthermore,  is that what this book even is?

Apparently DC “suits” got in touch with screenwriter Max Landis (of Chronicle and American Ultra fame, among others) a couple of years back after being reasonably impressed by his short film The Death And Life Of Superman (which is more than a tad ironic given that one of the things Landis seems to relish doing in that movie is pointing out the various gaping plotholes contained within that legendary story arc of the same name) and offered him carte blanche to write the Superman story of his dreams — the result of which is this much-publicized project that sees the we-sure-hope-he’s-the-next-superstar author paired with a different artist each issue as they fill in some gaps in young Clark Kent’s life. Landis himself says that there’s no traditional story “arc” here per se, but that each “vignette” will go some way towards giving us a greater understanding of comics’ most iconic character.

Okay, I’ll buy that, but again, I have to ask, is it really necessary? Especially in light of current goings-on in the Superman “family” of titles?

For those who may not be aware, The Man Of Tomorrow has his feet planted firmly in the here and now in the pages of both Superman and Action Comics these days : he’s had his powers dramatically reduced, his secret identity’s been revealed to the public (by none other than Lois Lane), he’s ditched the costume and cape for a t-shirt and jeans, and he’s been sacked (again) from The Daily Planet — which means that, on top of all of his other problems, he’s also broke.

Fan reaction to these no-doubt-temporary changes has been mixed at best, and while it’s tempting to brush the more vocal criticism off as the over-wrought bleating of a reactionary minority of the books’  readership, in fairness the complaints of some of the naysayers aren’t entirely without substance, simply because the creators working on the comics themselves seem a bit befuddled about what this “new direction” means, with Gene Luen Yang and John Romita, Jr. in the midst of a flat-out mess of an ongoing storyline in the pages of Superman, while Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are knocking the ball out of the park over in Action by stripping Superman of his nationalistic, and even cosmic, trappings and returning him to his working-class roots as a guy who’s fighting not for the survival of the country, planet, or universe, but of his neighborhood. In fact, in a welcome development that’s decidedly more in touch with Siegel and Shuster’s original vision of the character than right-wing revisionist comics historians like Chuck Dixon would have you believe,  Pak and Kuder even have Superman taking on topical menaces like abusive cops and overly-zealous social media privacy-killers in much the same way as his creators showed him combating  genuine threats to the  average working people of their time including slum landlords, corrupt local politicos, Pinkertons, and strike-breaking scabs (you can take that “replacement worker” term and shove it up your ass, thanks very much). Heck, how many people even remember that Superman fought to save a wrongly-convicted man from the electric chair in one of his very first adventures?

Taking all these recent upheavals into account then, perhaps my original question (which, fair enough, I’ve already asked twice) has even greater import if we rephrase it as “if the point of Superman : American Alien is to offer yet another revisionist take on the hero’s beginnings, is now really the best time to do it?”

Having read the first issue a couple of times now, the only honest answer I can give is that the jury’s still out.

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Certainly I can’t fault the art in this comic at all — Nick Dragotta of East Of West illustrates the sweeping plains of Smallville with grace and elegance and has a real handle on the expressions and mannerisms of pre-teen Clark Kent and his parents, Jonathan and Martha. The book looks flat-out beautiful and colorist Alex Guimares is  an absolute goddamn star on the hues. Ryan Sook’s main cover (shown at the top of this review) is suitably familiar-yet-mysterious, and Dragott’s variant (shown directly above) is enough to make you go “awwwww.” So the issue looks great — but what about the story?

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Truth be told, it’s a harmless enough, if ultimately disposable, “puff piece” about how Clark learned to stop floating around in the air and actually fly. It’s fine as far as these things do, but probably would have worked better as an eight-pager in the digital-first Adventures Of Superman series (which Landis has also written for). It feels pretty stretched-out here, though,  and while it hits some nice “character beats,” they’re too few and far between to carry a full-length, single-issue story. It’s at least respectful of its “source material,” though — until we get to the double-splash image of a cluttered desktop that appends the story and learn, via discarded correspondence, postcards, prescription bottles, certificates, and the like that “Pa” Kent was a successful hippie-turned- lawyer who inherited the farm in Smallville but never really wanted to even live there, much less work the place, while “Ma” was a veterinarian who pushed them to move there when she learned that she was pregnant, only to lose the baby in a car accident that left her a prozac-and zoloft-popping emotional wreck until that fateful day when they found a spaceship crashed out in their back 40 and decided to raise the infant inside it as their own.

Logically, I suppose, these developments make sense, and while I don’t think any of what we learn here diminishes the characters in any way, does it really add any depth or resonance to them, either? I guess we have six more issues to find that out.

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And, I have to confess, despite my lukewarm reaction to this opening installment, that I’m mostly looking forward to what those issues have in store — but, again, that’s chiefly because of the art. And who wouldn’t be stoked for that with luminaries like Francis Manapul, Jae Lee, and Jock waiting in the wings? That’s a “murderer’s row” right there if ever there was one.

Landis, for his part,  says that each story will have a specific theme — one will be heartwarming, one will be what passes for “sexy” in a DC comic, one will be scary, and one I’m really not at all stoked for will be “ultraviolent,” but all in all, my gut feeling is that this series could very well end up coming across as a pretty scattershot affair if they do a fair amount of that aforementioned gap-filling but aren’t able to successfully convey why those gaps even need to be filled.

So, Max Landis, there’s your challenge in a nutshell, I guess.

Still, against my better judgment, I’m somewhat tempted to err on the side of cautious optimism here, at least for the time being. “American Alien” is a terrific unifying concept for a series like this, provided our scribe well and truly tackles the dichotomy in his own title, which underscores the fact (even if it’s a fictional one) that Superman is both the ultimate symbol of American square-jawed values and very much a stranger to not only our nation (come to think of it, if you wanna be absolutely technical about matters, he hails from that most unjustly-reviled group of all — so-called “illegal” immigrants) , but our world. If Landis can translate that idea into his scripts and find a way to explore it effectively, even if disjointedly, there may be more hope for this book than the evidence presented so far would seem to indicate.

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Question for all you long-time Vertigo readers out there — is it just me, or has it been awhile since a new monthly ongoing that went out under their label gave you that feeling? You know the one I’m talking about — the one that says “hey, this is the start of something seriously fucking special.” I remember getting such a “vibe,” if you will, with The Sandman #1, for certain, and a few years later with Preacher #1, and some time well after that with Y: The Last Man #1, and later still with Scalped #1, but since then — well, it’s been notable for its absence more than anything else, hasn’t it?

Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been plenty of good Vertigo series in more recent years : I liked FBP  and Coffin Hill quite a bit, truth be told, and I’m hoping that whatever publishing hiatus Effigy seems to be “enjoying” here doesn’t last too much longer — and certainly Fables had its fans even if it was never exactly my cop of tea, and they’re rolling out no less than 12 new series as we speak, each of which (at least so far) has definitely had something to recommend in its favor — but I digress (as I often do). The point I was trying to make here is, simply, this : that feeling is back. Say hello to Slash & Burn.

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And while you’re at it, say hello to Si Spencer. He’s the British writer who gave us last year’s admittedly-intriguing-even-if-the-ending-went-a-bit-off-the-rails Bodies. And say hello to penciller Max Dunbar, whose previous work I’m unfamiliar with but who does a bang-up job on the art here. And say hello to veteran inker Ande Parks, whose previous credits are too numerous to mention and who embellishes the images on offer here with a very deft touch indeed. And say hello to colorist Nick Filardi, who employs a pitch-perfect palette from the first page to the last. And last but not least, say hello to firefighter Rosheen Hayes, our central character, who hails from the equally fictitious Bulcher City, North Dakota,  and comes to the party fully equipped with a mysterious past that seems to be amping up its energy reserves for the sole task of threatening her present and absolutely torching her future.

Yup, this promises to be a very hot time indeed — horrible pun absolutely intended.

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We’re only offered tantalizing glimpses into Rosheen’s backstory here, and that’s as it should be with any opening salvo — we know she was orphaned after her father died in a fire, we know that an arsonist hit her orphanage on her first day there, we know that she made at least one weird friend while residing there, and we know that pretty much everyone from her firefighter partner to the town’s mayor to the new cop on the beat (for those keeping score at home, two of these people are male, one is female) seems to want to get into her pants (bet you thought I was going to say “seems to have the hots for her,” didn’t you?), but we also know that she displays all the hallmarks of having, shall we say, an unnatural attraction to the dangers of her job.

Just how unnatural isn’t fully clear until the last few panels of this issue, but damn — said “big reveal” at the end shows us that we’re most definitely dealing with a character here quite unlike any other we’ve seen in the funnybooks before.

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It’s not all “character beats” and well-timed flashbacks in this debut issue, though — Spencer’s script offers up the first clues of an intriguing present-day arson mystery, as well, and even manages to get us to give a damn about the identity of who shot a (don’t worry, non-fatal) bullet into a supporting character we just met a couple of pages previously, so right out of the gate we’ve got multiple “whodunnit?” scenarios running simultaneously. That takes a pretty deft touch to pull off in even a well-established series — to do it “from jump,” as the kids say? Well, that’s just plain expert storytelling right there.

I also get the distinct feeling that this will be a title that richly rewards re-reading, as well, since it’s a safe bet that a good number of clues are already hiding in plain sight, we just don’t know where to look for them. So do yourself a very big favor — get in on the ground floor of Slash & Burn right now, before the whole joynt goes up in flames.

 

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If you’ve been sampling the wares of Archie Comics’ new “mature readers” imprint, Dark Circle, chances are that you’ve been a bit surprised (hopefully pleasantly) by how “all over the place” these books have been in terms of their tone. The Black Hood has proven to be every bit as grim n’ gritty as advertised, and that’s been terrific and all, but Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid’s relaunch of The Fox has been just as accessible-for-all-ages as its previous iteration at the defunct-again Red Circle, while The Shield has the flavor of an old-school superhero yarn.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking any of these books — truth be told, I’ve been digging every single one of ’em — but when Archie first announced that they were “updating” all these classic characters for the fallen times in which we live, their press releases touting the new line definitely emphasized the “dark” in Dark Circle, and up to this point, The Black Hood has been the only title in the bunch that you wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving out for your ten-year-old to find.

All that changed in a hurry last Wednesday, however, with the debut issue of Frank Tieri and Felix Ruiz’s revisionist take on The Hangman, with its initial five-part story arc titled, appropriately (and simply) enough, “Damned.”

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Like all the other characters now gathered under the Dark Circle banner, this guy’s been around since the 1940s, but has never really seemed to stick for too long. For a while there, Archie even licensed all of these properties out to DC to see if they could get anything going with them, but the track record of failure continued and the house that Siegel and Shuster built quietly allowed the rights for the lot of ’em to revert back to their former publishing home some years ago, where they all, apart from The Fox. have been gathering dust ever since. Now, however, they’re back with a vengeance, and the character of The Hangman might just be the nastiest, gnarliest bad-ass of the bunch.

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The strange thing is, it’s several pages until we get to meet him in this opening installment. Instead, we’re introduced first to one “Mad Dog” Mike Minetta, a mid-level mob enforcer who likes his job a little too much but manages to maintain the charade of a hard-working and devoted family man all the same. There’s a scene where “Mad Dog” shields his daughter’s eyes from a hostage he’s keeping bound and gagged in the trunk of his car that has to be seen to be believed, but when he takes this wing-clipped stool pigeon out to be dispatched, well — that’s when we realize this bastard’s even more hard-core than we realized.

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Tieri — who will always and forever be known as the guy who dragged The Punisher into outer space over at Marvel — absolutely nails the “Brooklyn mafia goon” banter in his fast-paced script, and Ruiz’s art, while admittedly borrowing semi-heavily from Alex Maleev, by and large conveys its own uniquely twisted slant on modern noir throughout, aided in no small part by Kelly Fitzpatrick’s colors. My one gripe is that there are a couple of noticeable occasions where what’s being said doesn’t exactly mesh so well with what’s being shown (like when “Mad Dog” informs his victim that he’s going to smear strawberry jam on his crotch — I promise, it’s not what you’re thinking! — but appears to be dumping it into the air and letting it land wherever), but overall the flow here is pretty smooth, especially once our sadistic fuck of a protagonist hears tell of the legend of The Hangman, a local Brooklyn bogeyman who apparently takes out the guys the cops can’t get, subsequently it off, and then finds himself being pursued by him mere moments later in a compelling action sequence that can best be described as “street-level supernatural.” I’m tellin’ ya, friends, it’s some seriously gripping, balls-out stuff.

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Throw in a superb cover by Ruiz (pictured at the top of this review) and some kick-ass variants by Francesco Francavilla, Tim Bradstreet, and Robert Hack (respectively, as shown), and you’ve got an altogether awesome package here, even if the last page doesn’t necessarily make a heck of a lot of sense on first pass-through (my best guess is that the “spirit” of The Hangman is passing on from its former host into Minetta, but I could be wrong about that, and it should be a little more clear in order for the “cliffhanger” ending to have maximum impact).

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So yeah, The Hangman #1 certainly isn’t a perfect first issue, but it’s a damn engrossing one all the same, and should more than whet your appetite for more — provided you’re a deviant sonofabitch like I am. And seriously, did you ever think you’d see the line “he wants me to cut her cunt out and send it to him in the mail” in an Archie comic?