Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Aburtov’

Let’s not kid ourselves — America is fucked. Anyone who follows my ramblings regularly is already more than familiar with my views of our current (and, in my opinion, probably quite temporary) president — and anyone who doesn’t can probably intuit how I feel about the bloated orange mentally ill clown easily enough based on the first couple of lines of this review alone — but one good thing about living in strange and tumultuous times is that the great Howard Chaykin will probably have something to say about them.

After taking us back to the past in his last series, the stylish noir thriller Midnight Of The Soul, Chaykin and his steady collaborators, colorist Jesus Aburtov and letterer Ken Buzenak, are taking aim at the present day (well, three years into the future, as the timeline here would have it) with their new Image Comics six-parter, the provocatively-titled (and speaking of provocative, how about that cover?) The Divided States Of Hysteria. Are you ready for a bumpy ride?

Mind you, when I say “bumpy ride,” I definitely don’t mean that as a criticism — quite the reverse, in fact. I just know my Chaykin (shit, I’ve been reading his stuff for nearly three decades now), and things never go smoothly for anyone in any of his stories. That’s a big part of their — dare I say it — charm.

So, what the hell is happening in this book? That’s something of an open question one issue in : we seem to have a typically Chaykin-esque morally bankrupt protagonist at the center of events here — in this case an undercover CIA operative — and he appears to be undertaking and/or being conscripted into some sort of assignment that involves him assembling a team of recently-busted criminals (among them a high-dollar transgender prostitute, a Henry Lee Lucas-style serial killer, a homicidal maniac who hates white people, and an embezzling accountant turned mass murderer) in order to function as “disposable assets” working high-risk assignments in an America where an attempted (and failed) coup has resulted in some low-level cabinet member or other “inheriting” the presidency given that everyone above him (or her, that part’s not really clear yet) was either implicated or killed in the plot. So, yeah, things are messy — and that’s before they literally go “boom” on our final-page cliffhanger.

Yeah, “messy” — that’s sort of the operative word here. On many pages, a number of panels nearly threaten to get buried under a steady, throbbing stream of sound effects, digital coding, social media posts, and various other forms of electronic “white noise,” and while this represents Chaykin and Bruzenak amping their usual “look” up to about a “10+” on the ugliness scale, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work in terms of setting a visual tone that’s both arresting in its hyper-stylization and probably more than a little too close for comfort as a reflection of our information-overloaded world. I’d say something trite and cliched like “we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore” at this point, but who are we kidding? Kansas is saturated under all of this crap, too.

Keeping up with everything going on here, and accurately processing and collating it all, is something of a challenge, it’s true — but again, how is that anything other than an absolutely accurate and honest representation of today’s social, political, cultural, and media landscape? Chaykin just plain gets that, and he’s not in the business of sugar-coating the truth in order to make it more palatable — never has been, never will be, and don’t let the fact that he’s in his seventies now fool you : slowing down and retreating quietly into his twilight years is clearly and obviously nowhere on his agenda, a fact for which we should all be damn thankful.

I love stories like this, where we’re dropped in at the deep end and presented with no options other than “sink” or “swim,” and the creators trust us enough to navigate our own way out of the drink before we drown. Maybe we’re gonna make it, maybe we’re not, but we don’t need our hand held either way. The Divided States Of Hysteria makes it pretty clear that it thinks most of the American public is a bunch of shallow, self-absorbed, intellectually lazy, lowest-common-denominator idiots — but it doesn’t think you are. Take that as a compliment, take it as a challenge, but whatever you do, take it. We’re all in uncharted territory at this point, and our best bet to come out the other side is to hone and sharpen our critical-thinking skills with sharp, substantive, incisive works of art like this one.

Oh, and  perhaps the most amazing thing of all? Chaykin wrote and drew this before Donald Trump was even the Republican nominee, much less the president. This guy is definitely still ahead of the curve.

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Some folks still call WWII “the good war” — but you don’t hear many veterans of the conflict calling it that, do you? No, that term seems to be the exclusive domain of those who either sat it out or were too young to have fought in it. I might grant you that other euphemisms people use to describe it, such as “the last war where we were clearly on the side of right,” might be a little bit closer to the truth given that the Axis powers, Germany in particular, were clearly in need of stopping, but shit — it’s not like Stalinist Russia was the most noble of allies, and it’s not like we in the US had purely altruistic motives underpinning our involvement in either Europe or the Pacific ourselves. A “good war”? Sorry, but there’s no such thing.

Today, of course, we’ve at least made some minor headway in terms of dealing with the problems returning veterans have re-integrating into purportedly “peaceful” society, but in the aftermath of WWII, most of the guys who were suffering from what we now recognize to be PTSD were just told that they had “shellshock” by Army shrinks, given some morphine, and sent on their way. Many were plagued by vivid nightmares for the rest of their lives, many never did “figure out” how to reconcile the wartime atrocities they’d either witnessed or participated in with family life Stateside, and far too many ended up taking their own lives. Again, a “good war”? Spare me.

And yet explorations of the psychological and physical trauma of WWII vets have been sparse in the popular culture, and remain so even to this day, which is why I’m glad that comics legend Howard Chaykin is delving into that troubled and troubling territory in his new five-parter from Image, Midnight Of The Soul. Oh, sure, many of the standard pulp/noir trappings that have been Chaykin’s stock in trade for the past three decades or more (flawed in the extreme protagonists, dangerous femme fatales, hard-boiled and misogynistic narration, road-to-hell-style alcoholism, etc.) are all on full and flagrant display here, but it seems that the ol’ master is determined to deal with them in a bit more substantive way this time around than he has in previous (and rightly-celebrated) efforts like American Flagg!The Shadow, or American Century.

And hey, who knows? Maybe — just maybe — Chaykin, who is now in his early 70s, is going to prove to be yet another of those creators (like Kirby, Ditko, and Wood, among others)  who saves his most personal and insightful work for the latter stages of his career. Certain projects he’s undertaken in recent years such as his Century West graphic novel and his criminally-overlooked Buck Rogers mini-series provide plenty of top-quality fodder for the notion that this may, in fact, be the case, and while it’s still too early to say whether or not Midnight Of The Soul will follow that pattern, all signs seem to be pointing in that direction —and that’s definitely something worth getting at least a little bit excited about.

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Our hard-luck less-than-hero this time around is one Joel Breakstone, who was on hand for the liberation of Auschwitz and in many key respects never really left that behind. He’s been diving to the bottom of every bottle he can find ever since, and in his few moments of clarity is attempting to make it as a pulp sci-fi writer — with no success. His long-suffering wife, Patricia, has been footing the bills for the household while her old man struggles in vain to get his shit together, but she’s clearly and understandably at the end of her rope, and the machinations of  her sleazy brother,  Steve — such as assuming her and Joel’s mortgage in exchange for a year’s rent — aren’t doing much to help matters.  Don’t let the quaint 1950s Long Island setting here fool you in the least — this couple is doomed, and they both know it. Joel never leaves the house, and when Patricia does, well — let’s just say she does what she has to do to in order to get by, but her nocturnal activities are leading her right into a whole mess of trouble, and it’s trouble of the sort that’s only going to be compounded once hubby knows the score. Which, by the end of this issue, he does. And the revelations prove to be enough to finally get him off his drunken ass.

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Heading out on your motorcycle with revenge on your mind is never the greatest idea even if you’re sober, of course, but given that Joel is anything but and that his wife, unbeknownst to him, is in a shitload of danger that he actually isn’t the source of, it’s going to be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out. Chaykin’s art has, admittedly, taken a step back in recent years in terms of its fluidity and formerly- tight line control — and the new electronic age isn’t exactly proving to be his ally if the clunky digitally-inserted backgrounds here are any indication — but a “dated” and “past its prime” look actually fits pretty well thematically with the story being presented here, and the man’s scripting chops are still in tip- top form. There’s a definite sense here that we’re watching a consummate pro at work in a genre he clearly knows intimately, even if he’s not terribly comfortable with all the new tools at his disposal.

The same is also and obviously true of his longtime letterer, Ken Bruzenak, whose stylish sound effects have been a mainstay in Chaykin comics for decades, but who doesn’t quite seem to have a firm handle on many of the various digital fonts in vogue in the comic book world of 2016. You can see all the elements of what’s made this such a successful and long-standing partnership on display, but somehow it all feels just a little off — which, again, isn’t even necessarily meant as a criticism in this case since it amps up the book’s inherent “nostalgia value,” even if entirely by accident.

One member of “Team Chaykin” that I’m going to have to give a little bit less of a “free pass” to, though, is his colorist of choice in recent years, Jesus Aburtov. There’s no doubt that he’s an immensely talented creator, but the bright, even garish, computerized hues that he employed with such a high degree of skill on previous projects like the aforementioned Buck Rogers and 2014’s The Shadow : Midnight In Moscow look decidedly out of place here and detract from the overall noir aesthetic that everyone else is clearly going for. With the action in subsequent issues moving into the streets of New York City, my earnest hope is that he’ll tone down his palette somewhat to match his surroundings and their historical context, but as far as this debut installment goes, the sad fact is that the colors stick  out like a swollen thumb.

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On the whole, though, there’s no reason in the world not to be borderline wildly optimistic about the dark ride down that comics’ most obvious heir to the pulp legacy is taking us on with this book. Maybe I’m just showing my age here, but in my mind a new Howard Chaykin series is still an honest-to-God event, damnit, and Midnight Of The Soul #1 is a fine piece of evidence for the prosecution as to why I feel this to be the case. I hope that young creators with a penchant for all things noir are paying very close and careful attention to what Chaykin’s doing here, because so far he’s putting on a fucking clinic.

Stand aside, kids, your time will come — but for now, let’s all be content to sit back and watch the distinguished veteran do what he does best at least one more time, shall we?

 

 

 

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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.

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Ho-hum — another year, another new Fantastic Four re-boot. Honestly, it’s getting pretty old at this point, isn’t it? I’ve frankly lost count of how many Fantastic Four #1s there have been by now, but here we go again — barely a year after Marvel’s one-time “flagship” team book was re-launched (along with a companion title, the far superior and already-missed FF) as part of the already-aborted “Marvel Now!” line, the first family of costumed adventuring is getting yet another new lease on life courtesy of yet another company-wide kick in the pants, less-than-imaginatively grouped under the heading of “All-New Marvel Now!” Say it with me — “whatever.”

Gone is writer Matt Fraction, whose solitary year-long storyline seemed to run out of gas well before the halfway point, and in steps new scribe James Robinson, who’s joined by penciller Leonard Kirk, holdover inker Karl Kesel, and hotshot-colorist-on-the-rise (seriously, check out his work on Howard Chaykin’s recently-concluded Buck Rogers mini-series from Hermes Press is you don’t believe me) Jesus Aburtov, for a new “arc” entitled “The Fall Of The Fantastic Four.” The only thing is, they’ve already “fallen” on page one of issue one.

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Yup — Reed’s a bastard, Ben’s in jail, Sue’s a wreck, and Johnny’s boozing and partying his ass off in a wild display of hedonistic excess. But how did we get to this point? That’s the “big question” Robinson appears to be set on spending the next X-number of issues answering, there’s just one problem — he doesn’t give us readers much reason to care about his character’s respective journey from Point A to Point B .

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As we cut to flashback mode, Sue Storm serves as our narrator, telling us about how the team/family has returned to Earth from their sojourn in outer space to find things quite different than how they left them — their daughter, Valeria, is off living in Latveria (hey, that rhymes), the Baxter Building is overcrowded with new supporting cast members, and Fin Fang Foom is attacking New York. That provides a good excuse for our art team to flex their chops in a fairly cool two-page spread (shown below), but there aren’t too many other “gotcha!” moments or images to speak of here. Robinson has the dialogue for all the principal players down pretty well, but shit — they all pretty much write themselves at this point, don’t they?

Well, no, they don’t, but when the proceedings are this uninspired, it  sort of seems like they do.

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After besting everyone’s favorite giant dragon, the team goes about their droll daily business — Johnny sets up a nationwide tour with his agent, Ben tentatively gets back together with Alicia, Sue frets about her kid, and Reed pretends to give a shit about his wife’s neuroses. Then some imp-creature thingies invade through some trans-dimensional portal (could be the doorway to the Negative Zone, I suppose), and that “fall” we’ve already heard so much about is, apparently, underway. To. Be. Fucking. Continued.

Kirk, Kesel, and Aburtov all do a reasonably solid job with their various assignments, putting in a workmanlike, if unspectacular, effort, but the script is what really lets the side down here. I generally enjoy Robinson’s work — his current Image series, The Saviors, is off to a really nice start — but he never seems to take things beyond a kind of resigned, “going-through-the-motions” state of affairs here. He already knows how his story is ultimately going to play out, of course — all writers do — but his stubborn refusal to even disguise that fact makes for a pretty lackluster opening salvo to what, we’re told, is an “epic” in the making. You could have fooled me — this just feels like standard-issue super-hero melodrama caked under layer after layer of hype (not to mention eight different variant covers, all sporting the same truly wretched new logo).

Maybe things will get better ( it’s hard to see how they could get much worse), but at $3.99 an issue I feel pretty safe sitting the rest of this one out and waiting to see what next year’s inevitable new Fantastic Four #1 brings.