Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo Comics’

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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I could start this with a cheesy pun, I suppose, and say that when I  heard that DC Comics was planning on bringing back Swamp Thing yet again — this time in a six-part mini-series written by the character’s co-creator, Len Wein, and illustrated by Kelley Jones, who probably does the closest stylistic approximation of anyone out there to the work of Swampy’s other co-creator, Bernie Wrightson — that it sounded to me like the big green muck monster was “going back to his roots,” but I dunno — is it still a pun if it’s absolutely true?

When it was first announced, however many years back now (about five, I think),  that the one-time Vertigo “supernatural characters” would be folded back into the “proper” DC Universe as part of the “New 52” initiative, I honestly thought that Swamp Thing was the only one who could potentially benefit from such a move, especially given that Scott Snyder was going to be writing the then-new book, but let’s be honest — the results have been far less than impressive on the whole, with Snyder and his successor, Charles Soule, both doing their level best to immerse the character ever-more-heavily into a shallow contemporary version of the “Parliament” mythology established back in the 1980s by Alan Moore and modified, with ever-diminishing results, by just about every writer who took a crack at the book (in any number of newly-numbered “volumes”) since. I’ve read ’em all, of course, but about the only time I think they came close to getting it right in terms of moving the character forward (by moving him back, but I’m getting ahead of myself) was during  Nancy A. Collins’ criminally-overlooked run on the Vertigo version of the series back in the early ’90s. Her approach was very much a “fundamentalist” one, if you will, essentially choosing to simply ignore the already-convoluted-by-that-time continuity that had been piled on top of her charge and to go back to just telling good old comic book horror stories with a decidedly “Southern Gothic” flair, and ya know what? It worked. But they could just never leave well enough alone, and one failed re-launch after another has left Swamp Thing well and truly bogged down at this point.

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Enter Wein, Jones, and colorist Michelle Madsen (with a nod to variant cover artist Yanick Paquette), who have again chosen to blow off, rather than blow up, what’s come before, and have given us an all-new Swamp Thing #1 that, to be perfectly blunt, feels anything but. And wouldn’t you just know it? I’m not complaining in the least. From page one on, this comic feels like stepping back to about 1976 or so, but it’s not a pale imitation or lackluster approximation of the real thing (I’m looking at you, The Force Awakens), it absolutely is the real thing — and that, my friends, makes all the difference.

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Wein’s prose it still as deliriously purple as ever, with the “show, don’t tell” school of modern comics storytelling  nowhere to be found in these parts, and while that may be frustrating for some given that Jones’ art is more than capable enough to do most of the “heavy lifting,” this is a book that knows what it wants to do from the outset and proceeds accordingly — and as your options as a reader are as immediately apparent as they are simple : go with the “old-school” flow, or put the book down. I chose the former, of course, and so far it’s proven to be a very wise decision.

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The story’s nothing complicated, of course, nor should it be : Swampy, his supporting cast completely absent, is hanging out in the bayou doing nothing more than contemplating his newly-stripped-down existence, when The Phantom Stranger shows up, warns him of some typically-ambiguous bad shit about to go down, and then we get familiarized-by-force with the goings-on at a local college where an unorthodox (to say the least) professor has decided to take it upon himself to resurrect the dead — but first he’s gotta kill one of his student “volunteers” to do it, as you’d no doubt expect. And while some among you may feel that the inclusion of a zombie in this story is indeed some sort of nod to modern horror tropes, I assure you that this typically- tragic villain would in no way be out of place in a 1970s horror comic, be it CreepyEerieTomb Of Dracula or, of course, Swamp Thing, Plus, this particular zombie seems to owe more to Herbert West, Reanimator than to The Walking Dead — thank goodness.

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Look, it’s no secret which way things are going in terms of the overall trajectory here — we’re headed for an extended confrontation between two slow, shambling, supernatural foes, with a bit of dime-store occultism and “secret college cult” shit thrown into the mix for good measure. A guest appearance or two from the likes of Deadman and/or The Spectre is certainly not out of the question. And Jones will have plenty of gooey and gory scenes to sink his still-considerably-sharp artistic teeth into. He and Wein previously teamed up, with unspectacular results, for the two-part Convergence Swamp Thing mini-series early last year, but there they were hamstrung by heavy editorial constraints related to the “one alternate reality vs. another” over-arching theme of the predictably-rancid crossover “event” of which it was a part Here, there’s a definite feeling that they’re just being allowed to do their own thing — and that “thing” hasn’t really changed much in 40 years.

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Look, I won’t kid you — there may not be a ton on offer in this first issue (entitled, awesomely, “The Dead Don’t Sleep!”) beyond pure nostalgia — and certainly as the basis for a new ongoing series, this “throwback” approach would probably get pretty old pretty fast to modern readers, but never fear — Alec Holland will be getting back to his gig as “Avatar of the Green” or whatever in due course, I’m sure. And us old dinosaurs will probably take a pass on it at that point and let you kids have your fun. I hope the next inevitable re-launch of this character will be good, sure — but given the track record of the Jim Lee/DanDiDio regime at DC, I wouldn’t bet on it.

For the next six months, though, there’s absolutely no harm in letting how things used to be play-act at being how they are again (however temporarily). Swamp Thing #1 was a blast, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the rest.

 

 

Okay, so normally I pretty much avoid “top 10” lists because I’m sure they’ll make me cringe later — and when it comes to movies there’s probably a few (at least) deserving entries that would flat-out slip my increasingly calcified and deteriorating mind — but ya know, as far as comics go, this year I think I can do it. One caveat, though : since we’re big believers in monthly (or less-than-monthly, as the case may be) “singles” around these parts, the following list is specifically for comic book series, be they of the ongoing or limited-duration variety,  and therefore you will find no graphic novels, digital comics, or anything of the like here, although I should stress that there were any number of absolutely excellent comics that came out last year in those formats — I just wanted my list to reflect my preference for “floppy” books that are serialized in the good, old-fashioned, printed single-issue format. So without any further ado —

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10. Southern Bastards (Jason Aaron/Jason Latour – Image)

The pacing of this series is certainly unique, with the Jasons (Aaron and Latour) going from extended stage-setting in the first arc to a multi-part “origin” of the series’ chief villain in the second to side-steps focusing on supporting characters in the third, but they definitely seem to be building up to something big and memorable in an unconventional, but certainly appealing, way.

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9. The Twilight Children (Gilbert Hernandez/Darwyn Cooke – DC/Vertigo)

Classic Hernandez “location-centric” storytelling peppered with broadly-drawn, memorable characters orbiting around a truly fascinating mystery/supernatural thriller. Cooke’s illustration is, of course, superb.

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8. Tet (Paul Tucker/Paul Allor – IDW/Comics Experience)

The second series produced under the auspices of Comics Experience’s publishing partnership with IDW, Paul Tucker and Paul Allor’s four-parter is the most harrowing and effective meditation on the human cost of war to appear on the comics page in literally a couple of decades. Now available in trade, go out and grab it immediately.

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7. Deadly Class (Rick Rememder/Wes Craig – Image)

Things seem to be heading into Battle Royale territory here, with the exploits of Marcus and his increasingly-fractured circle of former “friends” taking a number of gut-wrenching twists and turns over the course of 2015. Wes Craig’s art gets stronger and more confident with each issue.

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6. Annihilator (Grant Morrison/Frazer Irving – Legendary)

Morrison’s Philip K. Dick-esque mind-fuck script is brought to grand, cosmic life by Irving’s absolutely spectacular art to create a story of personal tragedy played out on a universe-shaking scale. Now out in trade and definitely worth a purchase.

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5. Big Man Plans (Eric Powell/Tim Wiesch – Image)

The most gleefully anti-social and misanthropic book of 2015, this Powell/Wiesch four-part series embraces the most extreme aspects of the grindhouse without remorse or even apology. A visceral wallop to the face that leaves you reeling — and loving every minute of it. The trade’s available now, so do yourself a favor.

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4. Effigy (Tim Seeley/Marley Zarcone – DC/Vertigo)

Seven amazing issues of “reality”TV/celebrity “culture” deconstruction wrapped around a trans-dimensional mystery story that’s been on a “hiatus” since September that I’m increasingly worried may be permanent. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because Seeley and Zarcone have barely begun to scratch the surface here.

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3. Crossed + One Hundred (Alan Moore/Simon Spurrier/Gabriel Andrade/Fernando Heinz/Rafa Ortiz – Avatar Press)

Moore and Andrade’s initial six-issue story arc was absolutely epic and arguably the best “zombie comic” of all time, and while it took a little while for Simon Spurrier to find his footing as The Bearded One’s successor, he seems to have finally discovered his own voice while remaining true to his predecessor’s “blueprint” of strong “world building” littered with knowing winks in the direction of various genre fiction classics.

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2. Hip Hop Family Tree (Ed Piskor – Fantagraphics Books)

Piskor has “re-purposed” his oversized hardcover cultural history as a monthly series on cheap paper with intentionally-shoddy production values and the end result is a revelation. Yeah, the gigantic volumes are great, but dammit, this is how the series should have been presented all along. A wealth of new material, including “director’s commentary” pages, definitely helps, as well. Worth the “double dip,” without question.

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1.  Providence (Alan Moore/Jacen Burrows – Avatar Press)

No surprise at all for regular readers of my shit, the latest and greatest entry in the Moore/Burrows “Lovecraft Cycle,” now at its halfway point, is shaping up to be the most literate, multi-layered, immersive comics reading experience of the decade, as well as one of the best pure horror comics, well, ever. I’ve written somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 words on the series already, and it’s nowhere near enough, so expect plenty more single-issue reviews for the now-apparently-bimonthly series as 2016 rolls along. If I only had five bucks to my name and the latest issue was coming out, I’d buy Providence and go hungry — it’s just. That. Fucking. Good.

A few final points — while Image certainly dominated the list this year, their two most popular and acclaimed titles, Saga and Sex Criminals, are nowhere to be found here. I felt that both had “off years” and that their currently-running story arcs are definitely not up to previous standards. Saga will most likely rebound, but Sex Criminals is just getting swallowed further and further down into its own self-created rabbit hole and may very well have, pun absolutely intended, shot its wad by this point.

And while we’re on the subject of list domination, I’d be surprised if Image pulls a “repeat” in 2016, to be honest. Not because their line is getting worse, mind you, but because Vertigo is just getting that much better. They came on strong at the tail end of 2015 with their re-launch, but a one-or two-issue sample size just isn’t enough to earn most of these superb new series, like Slash & BurnRed ThornThe Sheriff Of BabylonUnfollowLast Gang In Town, or the latest iteration of Lucifer spots in this year’s top 10. Next year, however, is another matter entirely, and unless these books go to pot, I fully expect Veritgo to be the publisher to beat in 2016.

So — that’s our (alright, my) 2015 list. I’m a little bummed that female creators aren’t better-represented herein, to be sure (Marley Zarcone’s the only one), but hopefully the increased presence of women in the freelancer ranks will continue apace and my list next year — assuming I do one — will be far more gender-balanced. Kelly Sue DeConnick is certainly blazing a heck of a trail with Bitch Planet, and Gail Simone is in top creative form so far on Clean Room, but both of those books fell just outside my rankings this time around. Still, I’m as unpleasantly surprised as anyone that the comics industry is still as depressingly male-dominated as it is.

As far as more pleasant  surprises go, I never thought I’d be putting together a Top 10 list in 2015 that featured Alan Moore twice. If I was doing this in 30 years ago, sure, but apparently Moore is every bit the creative dynamo at age 63 as he was at 33, and so if I had to single out one “creator of the year,” he’d be it. In fact, he’d earn the nod by a country mile. I only wish that more people were actually, ya know, buying his stuff. Providence is selling great for an Avatar book, but it’s still routinely bested on the Diamond charts by even the most tepid and uninspired “Big Two” fare, so if there’s one thing we know about comics heading into 2016, it’s that the overwhelming majority of stuff coming out will still, sorry to say it, suck.

Okay, that’s it for this time around — here’s to happy reading in the year ahead!

 

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Tom King makes me a little nervous.

It’s nothing to do with the guy’s personality, mind you — he could be the life of the party for all I know, or a humble and gracious gentleman, or a devoted family man, or all three. I’ve never met him, so I couldn’t tell you. But the idea of Tom King, well — that’s what makes me a trifle apprehensive, I guess.

There’s no doubt the man can write — his work on DC’s Omega Men has been stellar, and his newly-launched take on The Vision for Marvel is off to an intriguing start. I’ve never read Grayson — probably because the idea of the former Robin going undercover as a spy after his secret identity has been blown to the general public just strikes me as being absurd on its face — but folks tell me that’s a pretty good read, as well, so despite being in comics for a relatively short period of time, Mr. King is definitely making his mark. Kudos to him for doing quality work on all the titles he’s involved with.

But — and it’s a big “but” — he’s also a “former” CIA agent, one assigned to work in Iraq no less, and I don’t believe you can “resign” from the CIA any more than you can from, say, the mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the only way out is usually in a bodybag.

Still, you rightly ask, what possible interest could the CIA have in the funnybooks? Well, we know they’ve infiltrated the mass media before — does a little operation named “Mockingbird” ring a bell? — and that comics have been the most fertile “AAA league” for movies and TV for the last couple of decades. By getting one of “their guys” ensconced at the ground level like this, “The Company” could be in on the first- floor entryway of the next multimillion-dollar “hot” entertainment property. Or, hey, maybe there are some pesky leftists among the ranks of comic book freelancers than they just want somebody to keep an eye on. I dunno — but I don’t like the smell of it.

Another thing I don’t like is the apparent “pro-torture” message I picked up on in the first couple issues of Omega Men. This seems to have faded into the background a bit in recent months, and it’s gotta be said that the series as a whole is almost embarrassingly good for a “Big Two” super-hero comic, but still — it’s pretty apparent to anyone reading that the editorial viewpoint expressed by the book is one that “enhanced interrogation” is, at worst, something of a “necessary evil.” When you combine this with the none-too-subtle stance taken in favor of vigilante murder in The Vision, it’s more than enough to suggest, at least to me, that Tom King is someone to follow not only for his talent, but also for the right-wing political messages underpinning his work.

Or, ya know, maybe I’m just paranoid.

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One thing’s for sure — King’s  supposedly “former” career informs every panel of every page of his latest work, the eight-part Vertigo miniseries The Sheriff Of Babylon, and even if this turns out to be a pure propaganda exercise, it’s at least going to be an authentic one with a sharp and realistic voice and a “no-bullshit” sensibility.  That’s more than enough for me to label the hot-off-the-presses first issue as my comic “pick of the week,” even taking my concerns about its author into consideration.

At its core, this appears to be a murder mystery set in a highly unique location — the American-controlled “Green Zone” inside Baghdad. Commentary on the necessity, or even the sanity, of our invasion of Iraq is noticeably absent, and instead things are presented in a very matter-of-fact, “like it or not, this is the reality on the ground’ sort of way. For that reason,  among many others, I can already see Kathryn Bigelow salivating at the prospect of directing the movie version, and certainly the art by the always-improving Mitch Gerads  — who’s handling the book’s impeccably-chosen colors, as well, and whose style has taken another dramatic leap forward here as it did between his Image series The Activity and his run on Marvel’s The Punisher — really gets the dust inside your pores and the smell of burning oil up your nostrils. Fuck, I even felt hot reading this comic, and it was about 30 degrees here in Minneapolis when I opened it up. So, yeah — this is definitely the real deal, folks. On every conceivable level.

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As far as murder mysteries go, it’s definitely altogether unconventional one any way you slice it — and I don’t say that merely because of its setting, but also because of its structure. Apparent right from this debut installment — in fact, serving as said installment’s cliffhanger — is the fact that the murder in question is one that folds back in on the investigation surrounding it, given that one of our three principal players involved (those being an American police trainer named Christopher Henry, and Iraqi cop with an understandable axe to grind with his country’s conquerors named Nassir, and a Western-educated Baghdad native returned home to consolidate control of her hometown’s rapidly-expanding criminal underworld named Sofia) gave the “green light” for it to be committed in the first place and now is in a position to pull the strings in terms of how, or even if, the killer is brought to justice.

Assuming, of course, that anything like “justice” exists in occupied Iraq — a question that’s reflected in the series’ title, taken from a line of dialogue in the book when Henry wonders aloud if there even is such a thing as a “sheriff” in these parts.

Speaking of Henry, he and Nassir are both introduced to readers in separate scenes of well-nigh-unbearable tension that are, again, incredibly cinematic is terms of both execution and feel, and since saying very much about either would “spoil” a lot of what happens in this issue, it’s probably just safer if I say that both of their debuts are quite memorable and leave it at that.

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And “memorable” seems to be the operative (no pun aimed in the direction of the writer’s “one-time” employment status intended) word in terms of the reading experience King and Gerads are aiming to create here. Vertigo’s in the midst of releasing a raft of new #1s these days,and this and Slash & Burn are, to this point, definitely the standouts of an impressive-across-the-board bunch. I remain curious to see whether or not King avails himself of the opportunity to comment on the wholesale corruption, not to mention slaughter, that the US invasion  and subsequent occupation of the former Babylon brought with it, but even if he politely declines — or, worse yet, whitewashes it out altogether — all the elements are in place here for a “whodunnit?” quite unlike any other we’ve ever seen.

I may have reservations about Tom King and what he’s even doing in comics in the first place. but so far I have no reservations about giving The Sheriff Of Babylon a very enthusiastic recommendation.

 

 

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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 there’s one thing that really bums me out about the “New 52 ” universe — and truth be told there’s far more than one thing, but that’s another matter for another time — it’s that DC editorial has roped in every single corner of its terrain and isn’t letting anything out. Even “weird” characters like Swamp Thing, John Constantine, etc. are firmly ensconced within the rigid confines of the dully homogenized “DCU,” as it’s called. And while the semi-fabled Vertigo imprint where they once had such a comfortable home has increasingly headed into creator-owned (after a fashion — see if you can get any of the creators of Vertigo-published books to tell you about how “good” the deals that supposedly grant them “ownership” of their work really are sometime) territory for at least 15 years or so now, I admit that I do miss the days when purportedly “marginal” and largely unused established DC characters were allowed to roam about a bit more freely under the Vertigo banner.

Jonah Hex is a perfect example of exactly what I’m talking about. The scarred bounty hunter, originally created back in the early ’70s as a kind of comic book answer to the “revisionist western” trend sweeping Hollywood at the time (think Butch Cassidy And The Sundance KidThe Wild BunchMcCabe And Mrs. Miller, and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid), Hex ended up being, for the most part, a fairly standard gunslinger/outlaw who just happened to be a lot uglier than most. He managed a good run, and even survived a disastrous early-’80s reboot that saw him taken out of time and dumped into a Road Warrior-style post-apocalyptic future, but by the time writer Joe R. Lansdale and artists Timothy Truman and Sam Glanzman were given the green-light to revive him in a new “mature readers” iteration for Vertigo in 1993, he’d been sitting around gathering dust on the shelf of unused characters for a long time.

Lansdale, an acclaimed horror novelist who was new to comics at that point, wisely decided to blow off writer Michael Fleisher’s decade-plus run with Hex and yoke his take on Jonah a bit more closely to how co-creator John Albano scripted him, but by and large he was content to blaze his own trail with little to no regard for anything that came before,  and the result is a fairly accurate depiction of frontier life as it really was — illiterate, uncivilized, unwashed, unloved yokels leading nasty, brutish, and for the most part quite short lives in a largely-unsettled part of a country that was still a boiling, festering wound after the Civil War — and throws in a generous helping of supernatural “high weirdness” and bodily function and sex jokes to spice things up. His Hex is lewd, crude, rude, and usually in a bad mood. And needless to say, the end result is more fun than half-price day at an Old West whorehouse.

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Tim Truman was a brilliant choice to illustrate these scripts as the samples reproduced here show, and his down-and-dirty style has an appropriately “old school” western feel to it combined with a modernist’s eye for just what a shithole the frontier really was. A better  penciller for this stuff would be hard — nay, impossible — to imagine, and when you add on the rich inks of the legendary (a term we don’t use loosely around these parts) Sam Glanzman, the result is pure gold. This remains, to this day, one of the most lavishly-illustrated of all Vertigo comics.

The gang united three times — for the five part Two-Gun Mojo in 1993, which  sees Hex taking on a zombie horde in his quest to get payback for a friend’s murder; the five-part Riders Of The Worm And Such in 1995, wherein Hex lands work as a hired hand at an Oscar Wilde-inspired ranch (yes, you read that right) infested by giant man-eating earthworms who have — uhhhhmmm — bred with humans to create truly moronic, yet decidedly dangerous,  offspring (the main ones we’re introduced to being two twin brothers who are obvious stand-ins for musicians Edgar and Johnny Winter, who in fact sued DC for unauthorized use of their likenesses); and the the three-part Shadows West in 1999 that pits our scarred “hero” against the freaks and geeks of the Wild Will (yes, you read that right again) travelling sideshow when Hex decides to free a Native American woman and her half-human/half-bear (yes, you read that right a third time) from, shall we say, indentured servitude to the troupe. The Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman triumvirate played each successive series for more and more laughs, but they’re all just unsettling enough to make horror fans happy, as well, and the combination of fun and fright works like a charm in all three adventures. The stories are simple and straightforward, and Lansdale’s scripts are brisk, pacy, and give his artists plenty of action sequences and creepy grotesqueries to really sink their teeth into. No single issue takes more than a handful of minutes to read, but you can spend hours looking at the pretty pictures of ugly things.

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I would have expected all of this material to be reprinted in conjunction with the entertaining disaster that was the Jonah Hex movie a few years back (especially since Two-Gun Mojo was adapted for release as a “motion comic” at the time), but for some reason it wasn’t, and Vertigo is apparently making up for lost time now by finally collecting them all in the just-released Jonah Hex : Shadows West trade paperback, which is easily the most awesome thing you’ll find on the shelves of your LCS this week (or probably for the next several weeks). Even though these stories are all between 15 and 20 years old, they not only “hold up well” against most of the new stuff out there today, frankly they’re a whole hell of a lot better than, as they’d say in the West, ‘purt near all of it.  And while I could go on an on about all that for a thousand or so more words without much trouble, I do have one small gripe, so let’s get to that now, shall we?

The introduction for this volume, written by Lansdale himself and reprinted from the first collected edition of Two-Gun Mojo back in 1994, is one of the most egotistical, self-serving intros I’ve ever read. He doesn’t even drop Truman’s name — whose work really steals the show here — until the last paragraph of his three-page pat on his own back, and Glanzman, who’s never gotten anywhere near the level of recognition in the industry he deserves despite the fact that he, for all intents and purposes, invented the autobiographical comics genre back in the 1960s (and told some of the finest war stories the medium has ever seen, to boot) doesn’t even merit a mention from his author. Bad form, Joe, bad form.

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To his credit, by the time he does lower himself to acknowledge Truman’s contribution, he says that he’s “the perfect artist” to draw Hex, and he’s absolutely right about that. Then he goes on to say that he, himself, is the perfect guy to write Hex — and while that’s mighty brazen of him, he’s also right on that score, as well. At the end of the day, this superb team created a whole new subgenre — the western/horror/comedy. Nobody’s really tried anything like it since, and there’s not really much point, because the bar has been set so high (even if the material is decidedly low-brow, as it should be). Do yourself a favor and grab Jonah Hex : Shadows West now. No fooliin’ pardner, it’s the best durn funnybook yer gonna read in a mighty long spell.

 

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Is it just me, or has it been waaaaaaayyy too long since DC’s Vertigo imprint went trolling for fresh new talent on the other side of the Atlantic? In the early days of the line, of course, British creators were all the rage, from established luminaries like Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano,  and Garth Ennis to “one-and-done” types like John Smith, Gary Ushaw, and Nick Abadzis, the UK was the primary well tapped by the editors of the newly-minted “mature readers” range.

And then the trans-oceanic creativity pipeline just sort of seemed to dry up. It’s not that promising new writers and artists weren’t still coming on the scene in Britain, it’s just that Vertigo stopped looking in that direction, for whatever reason. Their London office, helmed by Art Young, folded up shop, and Vertigo seemed to zero in  on North American talent, in the main, for the next couple of decades.

I’m pleased to say that appears to be over, as the very promising new six-part mini-series The Royals : Masters Of War so ably demonstrates. Coming to us by way of the U.K.-based writer/artist team of Rob Williams and Simon Coleby, both of whom cut their creative teeth in the pages of the venerable 2000 A.D. weekly comic, this book hopefully marks the opening salvo in a new “British Invasion” that’s long overdue.

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Now, to be honest, I probably should find this series more immediately off-putting than I do, simply because I flat-out despise the monarchy. The American tabloid press seems even more obsessed with them than their British counterparts, and for the life of me I just can’t figure out why. The comings and goings of the vapid, idle super-rich don’t interest me in the least. The Windsors — and every other royal family — should have been stripped of their “birthright” and been forced to work for a living like the rest of us a long time ago, in my opinion,  but at least Williams and Coleby have chosen to focus their story on a novel new take on exactly why these folks enjoy such power and privilege — namely, they’ve all got super-powers, and us lowly “commoners” don’t.

Admittedly intriguing in a sort of “gosh, why didn’t I think of that?” way, this also provides a funky new twist on the notorious and thoroughly-well-documented practice of interbreeding and inbreeding that the world’s various royal lineages still adhere to,  because the “purer” the bloodline, the more powerful the heir-to-be will consequently end up being. It’s all pretty creepy and cool at the same time.

Williams drops us right into the action high above Berlin in 1945, with our ostensible “hero,” Prince Henry, about to jump into battle. As he surveys the devastation around him — brought to remarkable life by Coleby’s evocative pencils and inks which are more than ably abetted by J.D. Mettler’s amazingly sensitive and realistic color palette — he flashes back five years earlier to the moment he first decided to break the non-intervention pact that all the super-powered royals of the world had been living under. While London was being decimated by Hitler’s blitz, Henry’s older brother, Arthur, wandered through life shit-faced drunk and his father, King Albert, sat idly by doing nothing. It all apparently got to be a bit too much for our guy Henry to handle, and with the support of no one else in his family apart from his sister (and, it’s hinted, lover), Rose,  he  decided that enough was enough and chose to unilaterally break the truce.

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What happens next? Well, I guess that’s what the next five issues are for, but Williams does such a superb job setting the stage here that my curiosity to know more is definitely piqued. Apart from Henry, no one’s very “likable,” per se, which strikes me as a pretty realistic depiction of royalty in general, and it seems that typical “palace intrigue” bullshit will only be a small part of the world he and Coleby will be exploring here. We’ve seen “Point A” and the early stages of “Point B,” but how we go from one to the other is still entirely up in the air, and that’s a good thing because, hey, we all like comics that keep us guessing, right?

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So it appears what we have his is part alternative history, part World War II comic, part old-school Vertigo Brit book (albeit by a new generation of creators — apart from old pro Brian Bolland, who does a nice job with the first issue’s alternate cover) and part revisionist super-hero tale. If succeeding issues follow through on the promise shown in this debut chapter, then I’m definitely in it for the duration.