Posts Tagged ‘Francesco Francavilla’

Everyplace is going to hell in a handbasket these days — even Camelot.

Or so Cullen Bunn (who seems to have stepped into the role once occupied by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and, later, Charles Soule as “the guy who’s writing every other comic on the stands”) and Mirko Colak would have us believe, at any rate — and why not? Every other legend has been deconstructed (if not outright obliterated) in contemporary fiction, four-color or otherwise, so why the hell should King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and the rest be let off the hook?

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t see Guy Ritchie’s latest cinematic iteration of the Arthurian mythos (nor, apparently, did anyone else), but he’d have had to work pretty hard to equal the tear-down that Bunn, Colak, and colorist Maria Santaolalla perform on it in the twenty pages of Unholy Grail #1, their new series from Aftershock Comics. Purists will no doubt be alarmed, perhaps even outright mortified, by the alternative vision on offer here, but what the hell do we care what they think, anyway? For my part, whatever it’s worth, I absolutely loved it.

The story jumps around in time a little bit, which adds a pleasing bit of post-modernism into this ancient fable, alternating between the period after Camelot’s fall, when the knight Percivale returns (too late?) from his Grail quest, and the period before its rise, when Merlin, who often claimed to be the son of either a demon or Satan himself (comics fans may remember that no less than Jack Kirby himself hinted at this in the pages of The Demon and that Matt Wagner really picked up and ran with the idea about a decade later with his now-largely-forgotten revival of the character) meets up with an actual escaped denizen of Hell, and —- well, nah, that might be giving too much away. Suffice to say that the machinations and manipulations the wizard gets up to after this harrowing,  fateful encounter cast the entire story in a new, and decidedly grim, light that I defy anyone to find less than absolutely intriguing. Sometimes the stories we think we know best are actually hiding the biggest secrets of all right in plain sight, are they not?

I’m impressed at how immediately the creative team is firing on all cylinders with this series, which leads me to think that this is a project that’s enjoyed a long and healthy gestation period. Bunn’s lean, sparse scripting feel downright urgent at all times, Colak’s art is luscious, lavish, and borderline agonizingly detailed, and Santaolalla’s colors are just straight-up frigging beautiful. This is a book with a very “Euro” look to it — as one might expect, I suppose, given that both illustrator and colorist hail from the other side of the Atlantic — and it suits the material absolutely pitch-perfectly. I don’t mean to sell the writing short, because it really is quite good and further cement’s Bunn’s reputation as the premier “go-to guy” for horror comics these days, but seriously : even if the script sucked (which, one more time for good measure, it doesn’t), this would be $3.99 well-spent because the art is just that gorgeous. Wrap it all up with your choice of covers by either Colak himself or cover artist extraordinaire Francesco Francavilla and what you have here is some serious eye candy, pure and simple.

There’s nothing simple at all about what our intrepid creators are looking to do with this series, though. This is heady, ambitious stuff and jumping on with issue number one really does feel like getting in on the ground floor of something special. After reading Unholy Grail, I’m thoroughly convinced that all other takes on the Round Table are strictly for squares.

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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?

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You’d think that any character that’s been around since 1940 would be at least a marginal “fan-favorite” — after all, it takes a certain level of popularity just to stick around that long — but in the case of The Black Hood, a super-vigilante from Archie Comics, you’d be wrong.

Not that I’m sure ol’ Hoodie doesn’t have some sort of fan following, mind you — any character that’s been around for over 70 years is bound to pick up at least a few adherents even if it’s entirely by accident — but there aren’t many, and whenever he’s come back to the printed page (most recently in the early ’90s for a 12-issue run as part of DC’s failed !mpact Comics imprint aimed at younger readers, which licensed a good number of Archie-owned properties) it hasn’t been for long. Could that be about to change? I’m sincerely hoping so.

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I’ll be the first to admit that when Archie announced their new “mature readers” line of books, Dark Circle Comics, I was skeptical. Yeah, they’ve been making huge creative strides as a publisher in recent years with their “Death Of Archie” storyline and the phenomenally successful zombie-themed Afterlife Wih Archie, but still — it’s fucking Archie, ya know? How grim and gritty could they possibly be willing to get?

As news about Dark Circle continued to percolate over the past year or so, I actually became even less interested, since it sounded like, rather than going with new characters and ideas, they’d be reviving their old Red Circle Comics super-heroes (incidentally, how many times has Red Circle been relaunched over the years — five? Six?) one more time, and that the only currently-running series under that imprint, Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel’s The Fox, would be migrating over to the new line despite the fact that it was arguably the best “all-ages” adventure series on the market. All in all, it looked to me like a very good comic was going to be “darkened up” for no other reason than to make it fit in tonally with a couple of other books that were probably destined to have a short lifespan. Not a smart move.

Or so I thought. Then I picked up The Black Hood #1.

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Don’t know anything about this character? Don’t worry, neither did I — but I do know a little something about series writer Duane Swierczynski, who’s making something of a name for himself as comics’ latest “not afraid to get down in the gutter” true crime-inspired writer a la Brian Azzarello, Andrew Vachss, etc. As his recently-concluded five-part series for Dynamite, Ex-Con, shows, this is a guy who knows the streets — and furthermore, knows how bring them to life on the printed page with such authenticity and realism that even the most sheltered, snotty suburbanite would have to concede that his work captures the desperation and violence of a life spent fighting for every next minute in a world where nothing is promised, much less guaranteed. When I caught wind of the fact that The Black Hood was gonna be his baby, that was enough for me. I was in.

Artist Michael Gaydos is a name I’m not familiar with, though, I must admit — and that’s my loss, since, as the pages reproduced above ably demonstrate, this guy flat-out brings it.  Together with colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, who seems to be popping up in all the right places lately (see my recent review for Dark Horse’s superb new mini-series Neverboy),  they create a visual style for this comic that’s obviously got a very heavy noir influence (as well it should), but strips away the glamorous and stylized element of danger to show us the hard reality of life on the margins, and in the trenches, of inner-city urban warfare.

I mentioned no previous knowledge of The Black Hood was necessary, and that’s because we’re getting a whole new iteration of the character here, one with probably the most realistic origin for a costumed crimefighter you’re ever likely to see — namely that he’s a guy who’s gone completely fucking nuts. Our ostensible “hero,” Greg Hettinger, is a Philadelphia beat cop who, in pursuit of the original Black Hood, ends up in the middle of a fierce gunfight and finds hot lead tearing into his face at precisely the wrong moment — when he’s about to pull the trigger on his own weapon, causing him to subsequently fire blindly and accidentally kill an innocent. When he wakes up from a coma some months later he’s both a killer and permanently disfigured — and his mental state, as yours or mine most likely would under similar circumstances, begins to deteriorate pretty quickly. In fact, it’s not so terribly long until that titular Black Hood starts looking pretty good to him as a means of continuing his crime-fighting career while making sure no one will recognize his now-ugly mug. Only this time, of course, he’s not on the taxpayer-funded payroll, and is working strictly freelance —

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Yeah, okay, this debut installment is pure set-up, but shit — what first issue isn’t? The point is, it’s a set-up that’s pretty well a stone-cold lock to ensure that you’ll be back for more. It reads well, looks fantastic, and packs a definite punch. There are six different cover variants — I’ve included the main cover by Gaydos as well as my personal favorite (and the one I bought, naturally) by David Williams and Fitzpatrick, but there are some other really good-looking ones from the likes of current “king of covers” Francesco Francavilla,  and Howard Chaykin and his now-seemingly-permanent colorist, Jesus Aburtov, to choose from, as well — adorning this book, each with a suitably stylized-yet-grimy look, and it appears that Archie/Dark Circle is determined to put some real promotional muscle behind this book to make sure it finds an audience.

It shouldn’t prove to be too difficult a task. Work this solid speaks for itself, and I think it’s safe to assume that I’m far from the only “instant convert” to Swierczynski and Gaydos’ dark new religion of the streets. The next 30 days can’t go by fast enough, bring on The Black Hood #2 — or I must just have to get violent.