Saturday, November 29, 2014

Comics Capsule Reviews

Alex + Ada #10
Alex + Ada #10: I don’t know if writers Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn have every step of this book planned or are making it up issue by issue, but they are building one of the finest sci fi stories I’ve ever read. “Epic” is not the correct term; it’s just a quiet character study of a guy and his robot girlfriend. But the themes in the book hit many emotional hot buttons, especially if you’re single. In this issue Ada, an android with her sentience activated illegally, searches out Alex’s friends for help after an awkward rejection from Alex and an unexpected loss of energy. As she collapses on their doorstep, the couple assist happily enough, but they also contact Alex to alert him, against Ada’s wishes. When Alex arrives, he sets the tone for a major change in their relationship.  

There are some key turning points in this issue, as Alex receives a visit from an old girlfriend and finds resolution to their relationship. At least one person walks away unhappy. How will he relate to Ada after that? The ending is what readers have been waiting for since issue #1, with a final page plot point that moves the story into its next phase. Excellent. Every issue of A+A is a treat.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars.

The Kitchen #1
The Kitchen #1: The ‘70s. Hell’s Kitchen, New York. When their gangster husbands go to prison, Irish-American housewives Kath, Raven and Angie decide to take over their husbands’ various rackets. Running protection, numbers and prostitution games are not the problem; running them profitably and being taken seriously is. Kath is volatile and wants to shoot first and ask questions later—how dare some mook stand up to her? “Do you know who my husband is?” is a question she asks more than once. Raven is on board with the plan but wants to do things the smart way so as few people as possible get hurt—including them. Angie’s not that bright and is basically along for the ride. If they get any cooperation from anyone, she’s happy. 

Interior page from The Kitchen
This introductory issue sets up the premise and shines a bit of light on the characters and their personalities. The ladies also get themselves—or rather Kath gets them—into a situation in which they’re in over their heads before they get started. Kath lets her husband’s regular “clients” know the new status quo. The pushback begins instantly and I’m sure will continue to be a large part of the series. It remains to be seen if this is just a study in female violence or a cautionary tale with things to say about the human condition. Written in a hard-boiled, serious vein by Ollie Masters with outstanding art and design by Ming Doyle, I’ll stick with The Kitchen for now to see where it goes. Hopefully the series will pay off some of the early promise of this debut.  

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Grendel vs. The Shadow #3
Grendel vs. The Shadow #3: This city-shaking battle of Titans comes to a close. So far it’s been a game of wits, guns and blades and both sides have taken their losses. The Shadow thwarts Grendel’s every initiative, but can’t outright stop him. Grendel can hold his own in confrontations with the Shadow, but can’t defeat him. Tired of the detente, The Shadow tracks Grendel down to a smoky New York rooftop for a final battle. Unknown to them both, they have already been betrayed by the least expected player in their drama. Although no one’s mortality is definitively threatened (did you think it would be?), there is a clear and final winner to their contest.

In the end all the toys are put back in place, but Grendel vs. The Shadow is a brilliant, pulpy look at what might have been. Highly recommended.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

The Fade Out #3
The Fade Out #3: I am an enormous fan of both writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, especially the projects they have created together. But their newest collaboration just isn’t resonating for me as much as their previous work. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here. The art, starting with this issue’s cover, surpasses even Phillips’ high standards. And the noirish story is well-told and keeps the reader’s attention. But unlike most of Brubaker’s previous work, there is no real point-of-view character, it is more of an ensemble cast than his other books. There are no likable or even sympathetic characters to root for or be horrified by. It doesn’t help that I have read up on that period in early Hollywood history and the truth is far more interesting than this fiction. I tend to look forward to the Hollywood essays in the back of the book even more than the main story. This issue’s subject is “Johnny Stomp,” the story of Lana Turner’s Italian torpedo boyfriend Johnny Stompanato. The story is fascinating, with the abusive and jealous Johnny abusing Lana, scaring a young Sean Connery so bad he left town, and ultimately being stabbed to death by Turner’s lesbian daughter.

The Fade Out is good, and manages to stand out just fine in a sea of duller comics. Only being on issue three, I hope it eventually manages to amaze as much as Brubaker/Phillips stories usually do.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Spider-Woman #1
Spider-Woman #1: Spider-Woman #1 is one of the worst first issues I have ever read. The book does not do one thing that makes debut issues work. First issues should explain who the characters are, what they want, and introduce the reader to the cast and their world. Instead, readers are thrust into the middle of part 37 of an 84-part crossover. None of the myriad characters are introduced, the storyline is both complex and dull, and nothing is explained. There is a two-paragraph text introduction in the front of the book, but that’s not where the story should be told, especially not in a first issue. Who are these characters? Why are they together? Why do they all have spider powers? Who are the villains? What do they want? Why do they want it? I guess you have to read all the parts leading up to this to have a clue. Fledgling writers take a note, this is exactly how not to do it. This is easily the worst comic I’ve read this year, and I’ve liked writer Dennis Hopeless’ work in the past.

Censored Variant Cover 
The art by Greg Land is fantastic, and the main reason I bought this issue. I did notice Marvel chickened out on the Milo Manara alternate cover, blocking any objectionable parts with the logo, even though there was nothing wrong with the art. The politically correct self-censorers at Marvel should just bring back the Comics Code. That way no one will ever have to be offended, ever. I won’t be coming back for issue #2.

Rating: ** out of 5 stars (for Greg Land’s artwork)

Winterworld #4
Winterworld #4: Chuck Dixon keeps brilliantly building his post-apocalyptic, deep-freeze world. In this issue, Scully and his fourteen year-old charge Wynn are visiting a nice coastal town with an unusually friendly demeanor. The townsfolk even nickname Wynn “El Nina” and welcome her as one of their own. Then they ... give her a cowbell? That’s a little strange, until they imprison Scully and send Wynn out on the ice as a human sacrifice to ... something. When Scully gets free, he decides to teach the “Wicker Man” villagers it’s not polite to abuse teenage girls, or abandon them on ice flows. And boy do they get the message. This is the last issue with Butch Guice art, and he will be missed. He is one of the outright best storytellers in the business, and his collaborations with Dixon have all been top-notch. I really like this book.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Birthright #2
Birthright #2: Birthright is a bright new book with a strong storytelling voice. A unique premise is like gold in any storytelling medium, and every page bursts with original ideas. Mikey is a normal 8 year-old kid who likes to play in the woods. One day, he doesn’t come back. Five years later, a thirty year-old man appears, armed to the teeth and dressed like a Renaissance Faire reject, claiming to be Mikey. The police don’t know what to make of it. His parents, out of their minds with grief, guilt and relief, don’t either. And Mikey’s older brother Brennan, now much younger, is both glad to see his brother and intensely curious about what he’s been up to. And why he’s dressed like Aragorn.

In bits and pieces, it is revealed that Mikey has been raised and trained as the chosen warrior in a fantasy world, where time passes differently, fighting the usual evil monsters. He says he returned to Earth because the evil he defeated in the other world now threatens to destroy us. In police custody, Mikey pleads with Brennan and his parents to believe him and welcome him back. When the fingerprints come back proving the stranger is Mikey, everyone has some big decisions to make.

While I hate to ruin the main twist in the story, I would like to give people a reason why this book is different. Let’s just say ... while Mikey is being honest about who he is, he may not be telling the truth about what happened in the other world. And he may not be working for the good guys ... Birthright is a fresh look at some traditional fantasy ideas from a welcome yet skewed point of view. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Weird Love #4
Weird Love #4: Perhaps the best issue yet of the greatest and most twisted romance tales from the '50s, '60s and '70s! Stories include:

- Too Fat to Frug (Love Diary #47, 1967). I think this story boils the mad, mod ‘60s down to their patchouli-scented essence. Life was wonderful for Sharon Carr, the go-to Cage Queen at the local discotheque. Until she met Bus Wayne, the new Beatle-esque band singer. She falls quickly and hard for Bus, but is mortified when he takes a side glance at the new singer Sheila. Yup, that’s right, Bus didn’t try to break it off with Sharon or express any desire to date Sheila, he just gave her a sidelong glance. This is enough to make the volatile Sharon give the Bus a good slap and shout “Casanova!” at the top of her lungs. To quote Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Immediately sorry for her minor overreaction (ah-hem) Sharon drowns her lonely sorrows in fried foods, ice cream, and fried ice cream. When Sharon goes to the doctor for help losing her new folds of fat, he tells her, “I’m sorry, Sharon, there’s nothing I can do for you! Your glands have been disturbed by your over-eating! I’m afraid you’ll be this way for the rest of your life!” To which Sharon replies, “OOOhh NOOO!” Really, what else is she going to say? Thanks for the true and accurate medical advice, Dr. Mengele. Distraught, the now morbidly obese Sharon makes her peace with losing Bus, continues her strict Ho-Ho diet, and finds a fat guy to date. Really. That’s how it ends. The ‘60s, ladies and gentlemen! I’m still not sure what “frugging” is.

- I Was a Border Racket Girl (Sweethearts #107, 1952). Amy is poor and wants more out of life. Her pal Dot turns her on to the Border Racket—marrying foreigners who want to get into the U.S. for some easy cash! They come to the U.S., then get a divorce a few months later and Dot goes back for the next terrorist upstanding immigrant. Was that really a thing? Amy meets French Canadian Rene and assumes he wants in on the Border Racket. As their romance turns real, Amy is not sure she can go through with it. But she wants Rene to meet his terrorist pals achieve the American dream, so she marries him. When she holds out her hand for some cash, Amy finds out Rene loves her and truly wanted her hand in marriage. Repulsed by Amy’s mercenary lifestyle, Rene leaves in a huff (probably to find an ATM). He later returns, cause, ya know, she is hot. Amy agrees to turn herself in and come back to him an honest felon. I guess they’re staying married after all, at least for 3-5 years!

- Flirtation on Wheels (Teen-Age Temptations #4, 1953). Pam is too ashamed to live, as she should be. She is the lowest form of life—a trailer park girl! Because her father is a freelance engineer, they must uproot regularly and go from town to town in—a trailer! Pam quickly gets the message from other kids in her various schools—you’re trailer trash! The only type of man to pay attention to her is her latest scummy neighbor, Don. When she meets rich boy Adam, she pretends to be the granddaughter of the richest lady in town. After their dates, Adam drops her off at the gates of the richie mansion, and poor Amy has to hoof it home on her own! But how can she tell Adam she’s ... trailer trash? When Adam finds the truth, which he’s known from the beginning since he’s the grandson of the richest woman in town and he’s not dating his sister, he’s okay with slumming a bit. But Pam is so ashamed—thinking Adam will reject her, she runs straight into Don’s arms. Avoid the lit cigarette, Pam! And the cheap Vodka breath! Will our lovebirds find happiness? I’m sure they will, these things always work out, don’t they?

Other stories in this issue include “Two Faced Woman,” about a man who likes ugly women, and “A Monster’s Kisses,” about a new bride who loses it over the fact her husband won’t shave every day on their honeymoon. There are also some priceless one-page features, such as “Men You Shouldn’t Marry” and “Love Dancing.” Weird Love is a perverse, subversive commentary on American romance, and should be banned from all decent and law-abiding homes. How I love it!

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