Friday, December 23, 2011

The Punisher MAX X-Mas Special (2008) by Jason Aaron and Roland Boschi

The Punisher MAX Christmas Special: And on Earth Peace, Good Will Toward Men

This cover really has no bearing on the actual contents of the story within. However, I love Chris Bachalo's artwork nonetheless.

I’m not a fan of holiday-themed stories, but Jason Aaron’s Punisher MAX one-shot is outstanding. It’s my favorite Christmas-themed comic book and probably one of my favorite single stand-alone issues in general.

A whole lot of holiday-themed stories just feel gimmicky to me. They tend to be hard to read out of season. Even the ones that aren’t downright bad tend to feel a bit disposable to me.

To some extent, this Punisher special is a bit gimmicky due to the Christmas theme, but Aaron and Roland Boschi, the artist, make the best of the opportunity to tell a single issue, done-in-one story about one of Marvel’s top characters. As a result, even though it’s a holiday special, the story doesn’t rely on the holiday to make its point; on the contrary, the story takes advantage of its Christmas gimmick, using the holiday theme to make a lasting statement about Frank Castle, the Punisher.

It’s a simple premise: There are two warring mobs. The wife of Johnny Castellano, the boss of Chicago, is getting ready to deliver a baby. Don Maranzano wants to kill the newborn infant. Obviously, Frank Castle is out to destroy all the mobsters. And the story takes place on Christmas Eve.

Basically, it’s a Punisher-style Nativity.

The comic begins with a priest in a bar. He gets a little wrecked and complains to the bartender and to a Santa at the bar, nursing a drink of his own, about how Christmas doesn’t belong to Jesus anymore, how people have placed Jesus in the same tier as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, and basically just don’t believe in the Bible. He knows this because he’s listened to a ton of confessions.

Eventually, the priest ends up mouthing off to some of Don Maranzano’s men, who are sitting in a corner of the bar, and he calls them out for being dirty mobsters. They kick him outta there, of course, and then Santa reaches into his bag of gifts, yanks out an assault rifle, and blows away all the mobster scumbags.

What a great introduction to Frank Castle.

Across town, more of Don Maranzano’s men go to the hospital where Castellano and his wife will have their baby. Just like Herod, Maranzano orders the execution of all the infants. Brutally, a mob gunman just mows down all the newborns in the infant ward. It’s even more twisted when we learn that Castellano’s wife hasn’t even had the baby yet, that she and her husband are trying to escape the hospital.

Frank, who’s arrived on the scene, sees the Castellanos, with the pregnant wife struggling not to give in to her contractions. He tells them to go with him, because he wants to save the baby. They end up in a race horse track to hide out from Maranzano’s men; the Don has three hired hitmen (from the East!) to assassinate the Castellanos. Meanwhile, a group of thugs (led by a guy named Shepherd!) wants in on the bounty on the baby, too.

Everything comes to a head in the horse stables, of course. Being a Punisher comic, it should go without saying that Frank manages to ice all the killers heading his way. It’s all done very creatively, though. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of any good Punisher story. You know Frank is going to kill people, but is he going to do it in a way we haven’t seen before? Violence is good, but it can also be very lazy. Even I could write a scene where the Punisher stands across the street and shoots a buncha guys in the chest. Now, clever violence? That takes some imagination, and Jason Aaron doesn’t disappoint.

In the end, Frank successfully delivers the child. It’s a boy! Born in a manger, indeed.

The boy’s parents are elated, of course. Johnny experiences a few panels of joy before Frank shoots him in the face. The mother, still exhausted, lies on the floor and begs for a chance to at least hold her baby. Frank kills her, too. What, did you think he’d have mercy for a killer?

The story ends on Christmas morning. Frank places the newborn (and a buttload of cash) inside an empty ammo container and leaves him at the footsteps of a church. The priest from the bar finds the infant, the money, and a note that reads, “Give this child something to believe in.” Across the street, Frank Castle grimly walks away.

Wow. A Punisher story that touches on faith and perseverance, universal themes that work no matter what holiday gimmick surrounds them. In 34 pages, Aaron and Boschi deliver a truly satisfying tale that other creators might not be able to accomplish in six entire issues. This comic has just the right amount of action, gallows humor, and thematic depth to stand out as something eminently re-readable. Boschi’s artwork is grounded in realistic details and very expressive. Dan Brown’s colors also do an excellent job in setting the mood of various scenes; just check out the opening sequence in the bar and contrast that to the lighter tone in the final panel.

Is there a better a Christmas-themed (or any holiday, really) comic book issue out there? I sure can’t think of one. This Punisher comic book is my favorite comic book Christmas story. It sure brings me cheer whenever I read it.

Merry Christmas, True Believers!

I have nothin' but love for Chris Bachalo.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fantastic Four: Unthinkable and 5th Wheel by Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, and Casey Jones - A Comic Book Review

Rereading Empire made me dig out my Unthinkable trade paperback. I only reread Empire because I had recently read some Incorruptible/Irredeemable, and therefore Mark Waid and his supervillains were on my mind… Funny how that works out.

I’ve got love for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stuff, of course, but Waid’s and Mike Wieringo’s modern take on the Fantastic Four is my favorite run of FF stories.  Waid did an excellent job building up the team as a family of adventurers (or, more accurately, “imaginauts”) and most of his storyarcs organically link to each other. Instead of a series of different, unconnected adventures, Waid’s FF felt like he’d actually mapped out all the major character beats and plots. Even though his stories had clear endings, it was easy to see how one story flowed into the next.

The Unthinkable trade, which is the second book collecting Waid and Wieringo’s run together, is probably the pinnacle of their work.  It actually collects two stories: “Unthinkable,” which is their grand Dr. Doom epic; and “5th Wheel,” a two-part, character-driven epilogue.

Unthinkable begins with an entire issue devoted to Doom. After years of being unable to definitively conquer his enemies through his scientific knowledge and technology, he decides that sorcery is the way. Thus, he makes a pact with a cabal of netherdemons. Obviously, there’s a catch to the bargain, and he ends up sacrificing the one true love of his life to gain magical power and knowledge. The twist is that the he doesn’t just sacrifice her love, he sacrifices her life, and his new mystical armor is made from his dead lover’s skin. That sounds pleasant.

Doom’s vengeance strikes deeply in this story. To kick things off, he uses Valeria, Reed and Sue Richards’ toddler daughter, as a conduit for his threats. Then, using his newfound sorceries, he sends Franklin, Valeria’s prepubescent older brother, straight to hell. (Or at least the Marvel universe interpretation of hell.) Needless to say, the Fantastic Four go all out and storm Latveria to beat up Doom and force him to remove Franklin from hell.

It’s a grand adventure against exceptional villainy. Although every member of the team takes their lumps and suffers quite a bit, ultimately the story boils down to Mr. Fantastic versus Dr. Doom in a battle of intellects, egos, and wills. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to tell you right now that the Fantastic Four manage to defeat Doom (and Mark Waid comes up with a very clever way for all that to happen, I assure you) and save Franklin from being trapped in hell; the catch is that they do so, but not without cost to themselves.

You have to love how Waid writes Dr. Doom, probably one of the most iconic villains of 20th century American popular fiction, as completely egotistical and unrepentant.

For a while, starting in the eighties or so, there was a minor trend to sort of humanize supervillains in comics. Characters like Magneto and Dr. Doom moved away from their diabolical roots and took on more noble traits. Magneto, in particular, was painted as misunderstood and even reformed and led the X-Men for a time. (Clearly, The Uncanny X-Men is a soap opera on paper. Personally, though, I never really cared for making Magneto a victim of misunderstanding.) While I do think there’s merit in the notion that everyone thinks he’s a hero in his own mind, it’s a bit tiresome to always seek to portray supervillains (especially one named “Dr. Doom”) as sympathetic characters. (This is actually one of the reasons I so enjoy Joe Casey’s superhero comics: Casey doesn’t shy away from writing supervillains who are so reprehensible that they outright revel in their own evil.  Some people are just born to be bad.)

And honestly, I don’t think Waid really deviates from who Doom is. Waid still manages to capture the aristocratic nobility in Doom’s persona, and the way he carries himself, even if, essentially, he is driven by hate.

The “Unthinkable” arc could have been a much darker story, but it’s tempered by Wieringo’s magnificent art, which just happens to evoke enough wonder and imagination that all the really dark stuff (like Doom wearing his dead lover’s skin, or the scenes of Franklin in hell) just comes across as unsettling. Wieringo’s style isn’t necessarily one that you’d expect for a dark story, but it works well enough and I think it’s fair to say Wieringo and Waid have a particular synergy when they work together. I think it actually takes more talent to be able to successfully illustrate a dark script in a cartoony style without actually disrespecting the script. “Unthinkable” is all the better for Wieringo’s contributions. (And Paul Mounts’ lively colors, too, make Wieringo’s art sing.)

“5th Wheel” is the epilogue to “Unthinkable” and these are actually my two favorite issues of the entire Waid run, and they’re certainly among my all-time two favorite issues of Fantastic Four in general.

A lot of superhero stories would typically work with the standard formula. They start off by giving the reader a taste of the characters’ personalities (usually by showing you their relationships or private, nonsuperheroic lives). Then the big bad gets a little build up before launching his plan or attack. The supervillain puts the heroes through the wringer, pushing them to the brink, and testing everything they stand for and believe in. After they get a chance to regroup, the heroes make their big comeback, they just lay down a fat whoopin’ on their antagonist, and all is well. Anyone they rescue ends up being grateful to be saved, and then by the next issue, everyone moves on to the next big adventure.

I mentioned earlier that during the course of “Unthinkable,” each member of the FF took their lumps, even though they won the battle. This includes Franklin, who just suffered an excruciatingly traumatic experience. Can you imagine a little kid being thrown into the netherworld and being mucked around with by demons?

“5th Wheel” is the story that deals with the consequences of such a harrowing ordeal. Instead of just letting the heroes have their comeback victory and moving on, Waid chooses to spend some time examining the ramifications an ordeal like this would have on the characters. Sure, they’re superheroes, imaginauts, even, and they’ve been through a whole lot of crazy sci-fi stuff in their lives. But at the end of the day, if you’re trying to portray these characters as people, you need to give them human reactions.

Casey Jones, not Mike Wieringo, illustrates this two-parter. I’m actually not too familiar with Jones’ work. I remember he did some issues for Warren Ellis’ Excalibur back in the late ‘90s. Did he draw the Jubilee miniseries for Robert Kirkman back in the early 2000s? I’m sure I’ve seen him do some other work here and there, but nothing much comes to mind as I write this.

Jones has a cartoony style, with thick lines, that isn’t too far off from Wieringo, so the transition between the artists isn’t jarring at all. Like Wieringo, Jones excels at conveying his characters’ emotions. His characters’ eyes, in particular, are especially expressive. Very impressive how he’s able to have the Thing express emotions through his eyes and facial expressions.
One thing I think Jones does even better than Wieringo is to illustrate the quiet scenes. Scenes with people just having a conversation are often difficult to pull off, but Jones uses facial expressions and body language to add an extra layer of depth to Waid’s script.

It would have been easy to gloss over the fallout of their previous adventure, but Waid writes the FF as an actual family of people who love and care for each other. They each find their own ways to deal with the aftermath, and it isn’t necessarily easy to just move on.

As “5th Wheel” kicks off, we see that the biggest problem the team have to deal with is Franklin. Being trapped in hell and getting tormented by demons has really messed him up. You can’t help but feel sorry for the kid. His parents have been taking him to see a therapist, but he’s unresponsive and completely withdrawn. Franklin won’t talk. He won’t respond to people’s gestures of affection or anything. He just sits around looking shell-shocked and depressed.

What he does do is draw pictures of the vile things he saw while in hell. It’s at the point where his mom takes one horrified look at his journal, sees the images he’s been drawing, and all she can do is cry and use her powers to turn the journal invisible. (Of course, the therapist tells her, “You can make the pictures invisible if you like, Mrs. Richards, but he’ll probably just draw more.”) It’s one of the most genuinely motherly scenes you’re likely to ever find in a superhero comic.

One thing I really like about how this story begins is that, in the first panel, we see words being written sloppily in a journal: “things are bad” in childlike, inky handwriting. Then, a panel of Sue looking anguished while Franklin loses himself in something. (We later see that Franklin is journaling.) The third panel: “really bad,” again in the childlike handwriting. But we then learn that Franklin has just been drawing those messed up pictures.

A couple pages later, some narration, clearly from the journal, kicks in: “They all need me to do something. But what? It’s not like I’m staying quiet on purpose. I’d give anything to say something that’d make it all better. I wish that a lot actually. But I can never find the words.” Then we see that it’s actually been Ben Grimm who’s been writing in his journal. With his chunky rock hands, he holds a marker like a joystick and awkwardly writes down his thoughts.

The whole fake out between Franklin’s and Ben’s respective journals is an example of some clever execution of the craft of comics. It also positions Ben as the heart and soul of the Fantastic Four. I guess we can say that Reed is the leader, the voice of reason, and the intellect of the team. Sue is the mother, the guiding light, and moral compass. Youthful and emotional Johnny represents the passion. Ben, despite his powers being all about being rock-hard on the outside, is the heart and soul of the team, the rock that everyone else can rely on through the storm.

Anyway, the therapist tells Reed and Sue that the best thing they can do for Franklin is to surround him with love and the things he enjoys, and hope and pray that he’ll come around eventually. Later, Sue decides to take him to Coney Island. Ben insists on tagging along but, of course, as The Thing he’s sure to attract a bunch of attention. Sue makes him invisible so he can accompany them, but he’s lovably grouchy about the whole situation. Waid’s characterization for all these characters’ personalities just feels absolutely spot-on.

[Here's a link to some of Casey Jones' original and unlettered artwork from the story:]

In another scene, while Sue, Ben, and Franklin are at Coney Island, a recovering Johnny (who had the most severe physical injuries from their battle with Doom) asks Reed why he didn’t go with his son. Reed, who was physically scarred after his final encounter with Doom (he basically has Doom’s handprint etched across half his face) can only say that the sight of his face disturbs his son. It’s a sobering statement and Johnny’s wordless reaction to it is so real and so human that I have to emphasize again how great Casey Jones’ artwork is.

Johnny and Reed have their own subplot in the epilogue as they recover from the trauma. Their subplot involves time travel and has plot ramifications for the next storyarc. As far as time travel stories go, it’s thought out cleverly and definitely works in context of what Waid’s trying to accomplish in his overall Fantastic Four run. However, I’ll leave it at that for now because what I really want to focus on is Franklin’s character arc and how Sue and Ben help him.

Sue, Franklin, and Ben spend the better part of the day at Coney Island. They check out all the rides and stuff, but it’s clear that Franklin is still withdrawn and his favorite amusements just aren’t having much of an effect.  (There’s also a funny scene where Ben, still invisible, wants to ride the Ferris wheel with them. Bad idea, naturally.)

Later on that day, some dude tries to hit on Sue, so she makes Ben visible again. They end up attracting a large crowd of autograph seekers, but then Franklin just flips out and starts acting violent. He just starts whaling on people and screaming at them to get away! After Sue and Ben disperse the crowd and calm Franklin down, they realize that the reason he’s been acting the way he has is because he still thinks he’s trapped in hell.

Sue gives him a long, motherly talk and explains how they would never leave him trapped anywhere, and that she’d do anything to protect her son. She goes so far as to make everything around them, everything(!), invisible to demonstrate to him that she can make his fears disappear, that she will always make sure he is safe no matter what.

Still, even after all that, he’s withdrawn again and doesn’t seem to be affected by his mother’s words.

“It’s crap,” Ben says, because Franklin knows that his mom is just using her powers – just because something’s invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Ben takes Franklin and props him on top of his shoulders as they go for a little walk. This then leads to one of my all-time favorite scenes ever:

Ben goes on to say:

“Yeah, I got sandbagged by fate. But that wuz one day. I lived another. And another. Safest bet wuz t’ stay in my room, but sometimes I found th’ courage t’ live like I wanted t’ live. And those’re the days I saw alien planets ‘n’ancient pirates ‘n’ goblins ‘n’ underwater cities ‘n’ … ‘n’ for all my crabbin’ and complainin’, I wouldn’t trade my life for all the safety there is. … Sure, I coulda wallowed over one lousy break instead o’ facin’ the world. An’ some days, I still do. I backslide. And yer gonna do that, too. It’s hard not ta. Yer gonna get lost in th’ bad. But so long as ya got folks around who love ya, ya gotta remember tomorrow c’n always be better.”

As Ben finishes his speech, we see from Franklin’s perspective that the images of hell are fading from his sight. Eventually, he doesn’t see himself still trapped in hell any longer.

“You understand?” Sue asks him.

“Yeah,” Franklin replies. They hug.

I have to say, I really like how Waid resolves this little arc. Internal, psychological conflicts are challenging to pull of successfully but Waid does it. Ben’s long monologue to Franklin at the end there is one of those chunks of writing that just resonate with me.

And the thing is, it’s totally earnest stuff that Ben says there. He’s just pouring himself out to Franklin. He’s baring his vulnerabilities to the kid, even though the Thing is one of the physically toughest characters on the planet. I love that. It’s a rare thing to find in superhero comics. Usually, superheroes solve their conflicts by punching them in the face or dropping them into the heart of the sun. Not so here, where Ben basically solves the conflict with sheer honesty and a loving heart.

What Ben says to Franklin is pretty much the only thing that anyone could possibly say to get through to him. Helping Franklin make a breakthrough is basically a job that only the Thing could have accomplished. No one else has his depth of experience, his understanding of what it’s like to suffer and feel trapped. Only he can explain what it truly means to change one’s mindset and keep on living.

Ultimately, Ben’s testimony is enough for Franklin to start living his life again. It’s a somewhat quiet moment but, nonetheless, an impactful one when Franklin lets the Thing’s words pierce his soul. Suddenly, the scales are lifted from his eyes.

With skillfully heartfelt writing and equally emotive artwork, “5th Wheel” genuinely stirs me.

I also like that this is a Fantastic Four story that really cuts to the core of what the team, and the series, is all about. On one hand, Fantastic Four is about adventures in imagination. “Unthinkable” certainly covered that aspect of the series. But it’s also about family, and “5th Wheel” is one of the clearest examples you’ll find of the familial themes in the Fantastic Four series, and probably superhero comics in general.

I’m kind of hard-pressed to think of many superhero comics that so overtly deal with familial love in such an honest, real, and affecting manner. Even simply taking two whole issues to basically tell the story of the aftermath after a big storyline, just to examine how the characters deal with the crazy crap they’ve had to endure still feels fairly uncommon in superhero comics. (I’m reminded of Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman when he and Javier Pulido did a three-parter called “No Easy Way Down,” which was an epilogue examining the cast of that title after they just endured some harsh business of their own. Those three issues are probably the most “indie” superhero comics I’ve ever read. One of these days, I’d like to do a proper write-up of those issues.)

At the end of “5th Wheel,” Ben and Franklin relax in the Baxter Building somewhere. We see a pensive Franklin sitting by a window, reflecting on what he’s been through. Ben reclines in a seat, journal in hand, as he stares tenderly at Franklin.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever be the same,” states the narrative caption from Ben’s journal. “But maybe that’s okay.”

After their battle with Doom, the Fantastic Four, including their kids, have been deeply affected by their tribulation. There aren’t any easy answers to get through it. We change or we die. Sometimes that’s all you can do: Change. Sometimes that’s good enough.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson - A Comic Book Review

Having read the first issue of Irredeemable and the first couple trades of Incorruptible over the past couple of months, I recently dug out my Empire trade paperback for a reread.

The first two issues of Empire were originally released under the short-lived Gorilla Comics imprint via Image Comics back in 2000. I guess Gorilla Comics didn’t do too well (most of their books were eventually published by other companies), and eventually the rest of Empire was published by DC Comics in 2003.

In the introduction to the trade paperback, writer Mark Waid talks about the genesis of the story. Basically, he woke up on the morning of his twenty-ninth birthday and realized that he had accomplished everything he had ever dreamed of doing before he was even thirty. It was a sobering and frightening moment for him. Faced with an unknown tomorrow, he could only ask himself, “Now what?”

That really encapsulates at least half of what Empire is all about. It’s a man known as Golgoth, a technologically-savvy dictator in a suit of armor he never takes off (think Dr. Doom), who manages to defeat or kill every superhero in his path and subjugate virtually every civilized nation on the planet.

In most superhero comics, villains rarely triumph; usually, even when they do win, it tends to be either temporary (where you know the heroes will regroup and the villains will get their due comeuppance), or a Pyrrhic victory. Even in a hero’s defeat, you know he usually at least gets the moral victory. At best, supervillains can win a battle but lose the war.

So if half of what Empire is about is the question, “Now what?” then the other half is the bleak idea that evil very well can ultimately triumph. Golgoth’s rule is absolute. He’s killed all of the enemies who were powerful enough to be a threat to him. Moral victories don’t matter to him because he’s accomplished the goals he set out to accomplish. There are only one or two significant pockets of human resistance on the entire planet, and they know it’s all futile. Every other vestige of humanity is under Golgoth’s dominion. His weapons are might and fear. With his technological prowess, his weaponry is unstoppable. He even has technology that allows him to teleport. There really is no escape from Golgoth, and Empire establishes a dreadful sense of hopelessness amongst the common man.

Through a minimal amount of dialogue from Golgoth himself, Waid establishes that this despot is fearsome and authoritative, and, to some degree, he even has the right to be somewhat arrogant. Even though he has armies who destroy his enemies, he’s not above entering a fray and sullying his own armored gauntlets with the blood of his opposition. He seems to revel in butchering the soldiers of freedom, and he slaughters people left and right with a sort of mechanical precision. Though he doesn’t gloat like a traditional comic book supervillain madman, and he isn’t prone to bombastic monologues, it’s clear that Golgoth is capable of extreme cruelty and callousness.

Perhaps the only shred of humanity left in him is displayed through the care and attention he pays his teenage daughter, whom he basically treats like a princess locked in a high tower. (Her mother, Golgoth’s wife, died under mysterious conditions years ago.)

Golgoth is a menace, but there’s no one left who has a chance against him. Although he has no real enemies, there’s still a great deal of tension and conflict in the plot. The story of Empire focuses not only Golgoth and his work in conquering the remaining pockets of resistance on Earth, but also on his political and military cabinet. His cabinet consists of a variety of perverse, twisted, and sadistic individuals, though they’re all highly talented at their tasks. Some of them are loyal, but some of them have their own motivations and intentions. Golgoth keeps his cabinet subject to his will by controlling their addiction to the Eucharist, which is a drug that triples one’s strength and speed. (In the middle of the book, there’s a great story about the origin of the drug, which I’ll get to in a bit.)

Waid takes Golgoth, his daughter, and these disparate cabinet members. Waid uses these characters to tell a story about what sort of world it’d be if evil had its ultimate triumph and good men were powerless to resist. Even Golgoth’s antagonists, whether it’s the last few remaining leaders of the resistance or his own scheming and conniving cabinet members, come off as rather impotent. No matter how hard they try or how well they think they’ve planned ahead, Golgoth always seems to be one step ahead.

One of the chapters of the book, “This Time,” is a microcosm of Empire as a whole. This particular chapter takes a break from the overall plot, and focuses on a superhero named Endymion, who seems like your basic Superman analogue. Years ago, after pretty much killing all the other superheroes, Golgoth defeated Endymion, the last superhuman who could stand against him. Though Endymion was thought to be killed, the truth is that he’s been imprisoned in a room, connected to machinery that constantly weakens him and drains his blood to be converted into the Eucharist.

It’s a tale of despair, as Golgoth has a conversation with Endymion, and Endymion recounts the story of Golgoth’s rise to power. What makes this particular chapter stand out is how powerless and impotent the superhero is. In just about any other superhero comic, the hero would somehow find a way. He’d gather the strength to break free. He’d use mind games to mess with the villain’s head. He’d have friends who would bust him out.

Not here. Here, Endymion does his best to use psychological warfare on Golgoth (he tries to sell Golgoth on the idea that Golgoth’s wife didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered), all to no avail. He has no hope of breaking free of his prison. All of his friends and allies are dead; even if they weren’t, the entire planet already thinks he’s dead. In the end, Endymion can’t get free and it’s all he can do to retreat into his own mind to futilely try and escape the pain of the machinery. Golgoth has crushed the spirit of the superheroic ideal.

And that, right there, really sums up Empire to me. It’s a superhero comic where the superheroes have utterly failed. It’s about being so consumed and obsessed with one’s own goals that perception of reality itself is diminished. This is evident in Endymion’s hope to be set free one day so he can avenge himself, his comrades, and the world. Yet it’s a despairing shred of hope because in his dreams he can’t imagine a better tomorrow; all he can do is revisit the past over and over in his own mind, and think about how things could have been different. In his own way, Golgoth himself is so consumed with conquering everything in his way that he isn’t willing to believe Endymion’s theory that Golgoth’s wife was actually murdered all those years ago.

After Endymion lays out his credibly logical theory on why Golgoth’s wife was murdered, he offers to find her killer if Golgoth will set him free. There’s this great sequence of panel-to-panel storytelling where Golgoth just kinda sits there for a while, glaring at Endymion, pondering his words. It sounds plausible that Endymion is absolutely correct. But after thinking it over a bit, Golgoth just says, “You would say anything to be free.” He then gets up, turns away, and teleports out of the room, leaving Endymion trapped and alone. He can’t do anything except hate his enemy so fiercely that he cries.

I love how “This Time” ends on such a downbeat note. It’s weirdly poetic.

The rest of Empire has some good stuff with Golgoth finishing off the rest of the human resistance, the machinations of his cabinet members, and a plot twist involving how his wife really died. I don’t think I’ll spoil the ending too much by stating that the whole thing ends with a little bit more despair than hope. There’s a tragedy in the proceedings, but Golgoth only seems colder than ever. If the typical superhero comic ends with the hero walking into the sunset with more hope in the human condition, or life in general, than ever before, maybe the typical supervillain comic is meant to end with the villain walking into the sunset with more bitterness in his heart than he did at the beginning of the story.

Mark Waid writes some excellent supervillains. There’s been a lot of buzz around Irredeemable and Incorruptible and those comics just reminded me that, in Empire, he’s already written one superb story about a Dr. Doom-like supervillain who stomps all over the world.

I know I haven’t said a whole lot about Barry Kitson’s art. He’s a well-respected artist, and rightly so, especially by Waid himself. I like Kitson’s work for the most part. I think his style can be a bit bland at points, but in terms of craft, it’s hard to really fault him. His panel-to-panel storytelling is clear and conveys all the information you need to know. His facial expressions and his characters’ body language are both well-done. He’s excellent at illustrating action, but he’s also more than capable of depicting the quieter moments and simple conversations.

The design for Golgoth himself is really inspired, capturing the cruelty and the regality of the despot of the world. Some of the designs for the other characters don’t really stand out, and I think some of the uniforms for Golgoth’s new world order are kinda fruity, especially the colors people wear. (Could just be a trope of the superhero genre in general, but I still don’t think the colors look good.) Kitson’s a reliably good artist. He’s nowhere near my list of favorites, but he’s certainly above average and you could do a whole lot worse than him. I’m glad he and Waid have a great rapport, because Empire is better because of his contributions.

Kitson’s overall style is sort of your typical superhero fare, which I think is an interesting choice. Empire is such a dark book that it sort of feels like something is amiss because the art looks like a standard superhero comic. A part of me does wonder how Empire would read if the art were suitably grim, but I do appreciate how Kitson’s art gives the comic a subversive sense of style. It certainly isn’t what it looks like at first glance.

Probably the only thing that really threw me off was how a couple of the later issues contain some uncensored swear words. Some earlier issues had some dialogue where you could tell that a swear word was heavily implied, only to get cut off. It makes me wonder if Waid had more freedom to write once DC picked up the book. Still, it’s a minor tonal shift in the latter half of the book that is noticeable, though it’s not really anything that hinders my enjoyment of the comic as a whole.

I think I’ve read interviews with Waid where he’s stated that he and Kitson, at some point in the future, would like to continue with a sequel to Empire. I’d definitely be interested in seeing how he can take this supervillain tale further. He and Kitson left themselves a few loose ends that I could see leading into a second big story. Still, on its own, Empire does have a satisfying ending, one that feels inevitable but is surprising nonetheless.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ultimatum by Jeph Loeb and David Finch - A Comic Book Review

There are dumb and pointless, but ultimately harmless, superhero comics and then there’s this travesty. Ultimatum isn’t just a lousy comic book; it’s an insultingly lowbrow piece of filth that should be the poster child for the digital comics movement because no tree deserves to die and be transformed into… this.

On second thought, I’m not really convinced Ultimatum is worth the storage space on anyone’s hard drive, either.

I find this comic very offensive, not because of any sort of underlying message or theme inherent in the text, but because it simply seems to pander to the lowest possible common denominator. It’s like Jeph Loeb thinks his readers are such lazy thinkers that he felt the need to write a pointlessly hyper violent story featuring ill-wrought dialogue and questionable comic book science. I don’t even think I can classify his characters as one-dimensional; they’re more like half-dimensional.

Ultimatum’s supposed to be this major story event that changes the status quo of the entire Ultimate universe. I guess it did its job in that regard, seeing as how the Ultimate Comics line has been rebranded over the past year or two. But that doesn’t make it a readable comic in and of itself.

Ultimatum sort of starts off as a follow-up on Ultimates 3, which I read chunks of and also thought was absolutely horrible, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Let me mention right now that I don’t have a personal vendetta against Jeph Loeb. I certainly don’t wish any ill on the man and, if he were to read this review of his work, I would hope he doesn’t try to hire a professional hitman or someone and destroy me, despite my vitriol for his work. While I don’t think Jeph Loeb has done anything good in years, he did write the screenplays for Teen Wolf and Commando, two rather entertaining and amusing movies. And I know he’s capable of writing decently good comics; Challengers of the Unknown and Superman: For All Seasons are both fun reads from what I remember.

Anyway, back to Ultimatum. Like I was saying, it seems to follow-up on some points left over from Ultimates 3, and broadens the scope of everything so as to include all the major players (and a number of minor ones) in the Ultimate universe.

I guess by the end of Ultimates 3, a bunch of stuff had happened to tick off Magneto in a major way. Scarlet Witch had been assassinated and Quicksilver seemed to have been killed by Hawkeye. Then, in the last couple of pages, Doctor Doom was revealed to be the sinister mastermind who secretly manipulated all of the events of the story. If Doom had facial hair, he surely would have been twirling his curly mustache. (The secret mastermind is one of Loeb’s go-to tropes in his writing. He’s done similar stuff in a lot of his other comics, like Batman: Hush, Spider-Man: Blue, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, and maybe some others that I’m forgetting right now.)

Ultimatum begins when some catastrophic stuff happens to Earth. Apparently, Magneto has shifted the planet’s magneto poles and kicked Earth of its axis. Therefore, as it says on the trade paperback’s back cover copy, “Eastern Europe is frozen over in a new Ice Age. The Amazon is on fire with volcanic eruptions. A massive tidal wave drowns Manhattan.”

I’m not a physicist, but I’m reasonably sure that even the comic book science involved in the premise of these catastrophes is somewhat faulty. I mean, even if all that stuff could somehow happen, why would the massive tidal wave strike Manhattan only once? In the story, there’s just one giant tidal wave that hits one borough of New York City. Why wouldn’t the entire eastern seaboard simply be completely drowned under water? I don’t understand that.

Not only that, but Magneto is shown to be able to basically move the entire planet off its axis with minimal effort. He’d never exhibited such power levels before, so why is he suddenly able to do so now? It all reeks of lazy storytelling.

Speaking of which, why is Doctor Doom depicted almost exactly like his 616 counterpart? When Warren Ellis created the Ultimate version of Doom back in the early days of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Doom was depicted as a vile creature, with hands like talons and legs like those of a goat. Now he just looks normal, and there’s no explanation for it. Was David Finch just too lazy to look at the original model, or did I miss the story where they explained this?

Also, what happened to Thor? All of a sudden, he’s talking in that Stan Lee-style, faux-Shakespearean dialect. And Mjolnir is no longer drawn as that giant axe/hammer thing that Bryan Hitch brilliantly designed. Instead, it looks exactly like the 616 Mjolnir. Again, did I miss a storyline where all of this was reconciled? Also, I can understand that Magneto has somehow gained possession of Mjolnir, how is he able to lift it? Is the Ultimate Mjolnir just a normal weapon without any enchantments?

For that matter, what’s up with the Ultimates’ costumes? I know that Joe Madureira gave some of them a new look in Ultimates 3, but why? I never understood the point of making the Ultimates look and act more like the traditional Avengers. Part of the appeal of the Millar/Hitch Ultimates was that it took place in a world that felt a little grittier and more like the “real” world.  Joe Mad (and Loeb, I presume) were the ones who first started to make the Ultimates feel like the red-headed stepchild of the 616 universe. Talk about a fall from grace.

Now, David Finch’s art isn’t as bad as Joe Mad’s. To tell the truth, though, I’m having a tough time thinking of an artist who’s actually worse than Joe Mad. Still, Finch uses the same unattractive designs that Joe Mad came up with and that’s why I have to read this comic where Hawkeye looks like a poor man’s purple Grifter, Giant Man looks almost exactly like the 616 Giant Man, the Wasp is no longer Asian, and none of the teenagers actually look like teenagers.

(Can someone tell me why the Wasp suddenly stopped being Asian? Well, at least Ultimate Nick Fury’s still black.)

There are a lot of things I don’t like about Finch’s art. Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that he is a very popular artist and there’s a reason he’s a big name.  He has a very commercial style, one that seems to appeal to those who grew up on ‘90s Image-era art (and the stylings of Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and the like). His action scenes are furious and gritty. His supermen are broad-shouldered, buff, rippling piles of musculature. His women are large-breasted, with thin waists, and pretty much all curves. I get that a good portion of comics fans love his style.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good artwork. I really don’t like how everything is drenched with unnecessary crosshatching. People’s biceps have way too many lines. Their foreheads and brows are coated with ridiculously unattractive amount of furrows. Thick veins are popping out everywhere.

Finch’s characters only have two expressions: They’re either stone-faced sullen, or they’re raging mad. As a result, his scenes that involve characters doing anything other than fighting are particularly lackluster. Everyone stands around posed unnaturally. It’s like Finch draws everything to be a poster. That might be fine for the occasional splash page or fight scene, but it’s just not good storytelling in terms of panel-to-panel continuity and emotional resonance. I find myself extremely bored looking at most of his pictures.

I also think it’s funny how, in some of the extras in the back of the trade, we see some of Finch’s penciled pages. There’s this one page of Carol Danvers meeting Iron Man and Cap in a hospital, and he originally drew her with her 616 Ms. Marvel mask. In the actual printed page, she doesn’t have a mask. I think that kinda sums up David Finch. He’s more passionate about the superheroic aspects of the story rather than any other personal or emotional aspect.

To be fair, I have to point out that Finch does draw one of my favorite pictures of Hela near the end of issue two. (However, Thor’s arms in the foreground have a disgusting amount of extra lines.) It’s probably my favorite David Finch drawing, other than one of his Sentinels during his Ultimate X-Men run with Brian Michael Bendis. It doesn’t necessarily fit the style of the Ultimates that I felt Bryan Hitch had established so nicely, but out of context, it’s not such a bad drawing.

Now, I can stomach lousy artwork if the story’s any decent. I thoroughly enjoyed the latter half of Bendis’ Ultimate X-Men run, and Finch penciled that. Jeph Loeb, clearly, is no Brian Bendis.

There are a lot of problems with the writing. I’ve already mentioned some of the sillier aspects of the premise. The details of the story aren’t much better.

In the first issue, when the tidal wave hits Manhattan, a number of characters die right off. Cap and Iron Man manage to survive and they both seem fine, but, inexplicably, in the second issue Iron Man is racing an unconscious Cap to a hospital. It’s baffling.

I have no idea whether or not the tie-in issues in the Ultimate line’s regular lineup touched on the emotional impact of the deaths. I haven’t read the tie-ins. I can only judge Ultimatum itself. I have to say that here, the deaths feel completely meaningless and pointless.

True, in real life, death often can feel meaningless and pointless. But that’s not the way you want to convey death in a work of fiction. There are ways to convey the idea and emotions of a senseless death to the other characters in the story, but you don’t want the reader to feel that what he just read was pointless.

As such, a lot of Ultimatum simply feels like Loeb’s just clearing the deck of various characters. Beyond the simple shock value, there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind why certain characters are killed, often in absurdly violent fashion.

There’s the infamous scene in which the Blob eats the Wasp’s guts and organs, and Hank Pym retaliates by growing to giant-size, grabbing the Blob, and chomping his head off. Pym then takes Wasp’s chewed corpse and thinks he can still save her. It sounds like something that could be a parody, but Loeb and Finch play it completely dead serious, like they’re actually aiming at genuine gravitas. The results are unintentionally comedic!

When Magneto kills Professor X by snapping his neck, the Professor lies in a pool of his own blood. Granted, I’ve never seen anyone get his neck snapped before, and I’m no expert on anatomy, but should there really be that much blood after a snapped neck?

There’s a lot of unnecessary gore and violence in this comic.

Carol Danvers uses an assault rifle and blows holes in a bunch of Multiple Man’s dupes. Hawkeye shoots arrows through people’s eyes. The X-Men find the x-ceptionally bloody corpses of their comrades. Giant Man explodes, his skeleton scattered all over the water. Dr. Strange is choked in his own sash to the point where his head explodes and the rest of his body plops onto the ground from sixty feet.

In Valhalla, Cap and Thor hack through an unceasing mob of the undead, who all happen to spurt and gush blood with every chopped limb. (For that matter, isn’t Valhalla supposed to be a majestic hall for the souls of dead warriors? In Loeb and Finch’s Ultimate Universe, it’s just a dreary place ruled by Hela and filled with a zombie army. Also, there’s no background, which must have helped Finch have the time to draw all those extra sinews on those zombies’ biceps.)

Sabretooth bites Angel’s wings off. Wolverine eviscerates Magneto’s guts out. Magneto retaliates by forcing Cyclops and Iron Man to shoot all the fleshy bits off of Wolverine before he uses his magnetism to completely disperse his adamantium skeleton. It’s all very juvenile.

You also have to love how, for the final battle against Magneto, Nick Fury assembles a hit squad of Cap, Iron Man, Cyclops, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Marvel Girl, Angel, Valkyrie, and Storm. Really? Nick Fury (whom Reed Richards and Dr. Doom retrieved from an alternate universe – it sounds stupid, and it is, so the less said about it, the better), the greatest and most brilliant tactical strategist in the entire Marvel multiverse, plans an assault against the Master of Magnetism and assembles a team with a guy who uses a metal shield, a guy who uses a metal suit, a guy who uses metal arrows, a chick who uses a metal sword, and a guy with a metal skeleton and metal claws? Really? I’m a bit shocked that Colossus wasn’t part of the team. And after all the times the X-Men have faced Magneto, you’d think Cyclops would wear a plastic visor… but nope.

The ending is also a really cheap copout after all the havoc Magneto wreaked throughout the story. After killing half the world for revenge and mutant pride, Fury tells Mags that homo sapiens created mutants in a laboratory. Booya! Mags’ world is totally shaken! Everything he knew was a lie! A lie! And he believed it! So after he learns the truth, he fixes the earth’s axis in three panels and then asks for forgiveness. Cyclops demolishes him with an optic blast. (Aren’t his optic blasts concussive force beams? How come they completely disintegrated Magneto’s face? I don’t understand comic book science!)

A few pages later, in the epilogue, Cyclops is giving a speech when he gets assassinated. (With a completely gratuitous blood splatter! Almost as gratuitous as my use of parentheses! And exclamation marks! Jeph Loeb, look what you’ve done!)

The Thing then pays Dr. Doom a visit and crushes his head with one hand. “You hadda pay for what you did,” Ben Grimm says, grimly. Did you see what I did there? Jeph Loeb would have been proud at my mastery of the obvious.

At the end, Quicksilver is revealed to have survived Ultimates 3. In typical Jeph Loeb fashion, Quicksilver, or rather some mysterious shadowy woman, is the TRUE mastermind of Ultimatum! What a cliffhanger.

What a horrible comic. Still, it’s worth reading, just once, so you can get a feel for what a truly terrible comic feels like when it assaults your senses. Ultimatum is exactly the sort of shameful, puerile superhero drivel that sets the genre back to the point where you question whether people who brush off comics in general as "kids' stuff" have a legitimate point.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Quick Comics Reviews 6

El Diablo by Brian Azzarello and Danijel Zezelj – Originally published during the early run of 100 Bullets, El Diablo taps into a similar twisted bleakness. Like Johnny Double before it, El Diablo is based on an old DC Comics character. Here, Azzarello gets the chance to give El Diablo a bit of a spitshine by injecting a healthy dose of noir attitude into this western. In this story, El Diablo is more of an unknowable force of nature than a character. The protagonist is a guy named Sheriff Moses Stone, a former bounty hunter with a shady past, who is out to track down one mean hombre of an outlaw. Somehow, El Diablo is tied up into Stone’s dark past.

This is a great read. It’s more complicated than you’d expect from what was originally a four-issue miniseries, but this is Brian Azzarello here. El Diablo certainly warrants multiple readings. It’s a rather dense noir western tale about death and tragedy, so how can you not love that? Zezelj’s art really works. He uses a lot of thick lines and alternates between packing a lot of detail into panels and designing cleaner panels. Sometimes things get murky, but I think this just adds to the denseness of the comic as a whole. Sometimes people don’t like it when art is confusing, and I can certainly agree with that. Still, I do think there’s a difference between lousy storytelling and intentional chaos. Just look at some of Chris Bachalo’s stuff and you can see that he likes the intentional chaos. Zezelj’s art isn’t as wild as Bachalo’s, but I do think it forces you to kind of slow down the pace a bit, which is a pretty cool trick of the trade.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli – This book deserves all the acclaim it’s garnered. It is an amazing piece of comics art. The title character is a fifty-year old architect/professor who, due to forces of nature, is forced out of his home and ends up soul-searching and reflecting on his past as he moves to a new town. A good chunk of the story is told through flashbacks as we learn more about Asterios and who he is and how he came to be. Thematically it’s rich. It touches upon Greek tragedy and philosophy, dualism, art, arrogance and pride, life and death, regret and optimism, and so much more. It’s really one of those comics you can read many times and continue to glean something new with each successive reading. I love how layered it is, yet it’s not one of those pretentious comics where the creator’s just out to prove how amazing and intellectual he is. Asterios Polyp has genuine emotion at its core, and the protagonist undergoes a legitimate journey of progress. I love the ending, too. It’s hugely satisfying.

Most people probably know of Mazzucchelli due to his art on two of the most influential superhero comics of all time: Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both of which were written by Frank Miller. Those two books are rightful classics, but I also want to point out his indie work in the years since. His adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass is one of those comics that someone could claim is one of the ten greatest North American comics ever and I wouldn’t bother trying to debate that. Mazzuchelli’s artwork in Asterios Polyp doesn’t really look anything like his work on Daredevil or Batman, but his level of craft is immaculate, and some of his ideas and his execution here could be considered groundbreaking. This is one of those comics that I think people will study years from now. You can learn so much about the form from it.

Asterios Polyp definitely deserves my highest possible recommendation.

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet v. 2 – Rhino and Mysterio by Dan Slott, Fred Van Lente, Joe Kelly, Max Fiumara, Marcos Martin, Javier Pulido, and Michael Lark – I haven’t been consistently reading Amazing Spider-Man since it One More Day ended and Marvel revamped the series with its thrice-monthly release schedule. I’ve read a handful of trade paperback collections, though not in any particular sort of reading order. I appreciate what Marvel’s been trying to do with this title and if I were still inclined to buy single issues every week, I could see how Amazing could be an addictive experience. Reading these trades, however, makes me feel rather critical because the actual quality of these comics varies wildly from issue to issue, which is never good when reading a single collected edition.

It’s sort of like a football team that doesn’t have a featured running back who gets the bulk of the carries throughout the course of a game. Sometimes a team doesn’t really have one legit starter, so the team just rotates three guys in and out throughout, hoping they stay fresh and that the constant changes keep the opponent’s defense off-balance.

Comic books don’t really work that way. Or if there has been a series that’s pulled that off, I can’t think of it right now.

This Spider-Man-by-committee succeeds in giving readers a steady, consistent dose of Amazing, but I can’t say everyone in their creative stable lives up to the top billing that The Amazing Spider-Man rightfully deserves.

In The Gauntlet volume 2: Rhino and Mysterio, we get some excellent stories written by Joe Kelly featuring the Rhino. We also get some really mediocre comics about Mysterio (with some stuff about Silvermane, the Maggia, and Mr. Negative) written by Dan Slott. Fred Van Lente chips in with a couple of origin stories, each of which feature the aforementioned supervillains.  Max Fiumara’s art in Joe Kelly’s stories is serviceable, but compared to the truly wonderful art of Marcos Martin (and Javier Pulido) in the Mysterio arc, it isn’t as appealing. Michael Lark draws on of Slott’s issues, too. If only the artists had been switched around.

All in all, I wasn’t impressed by this collection. The Joe Kelly issues are ace, though; I really like what he’s done with the Rhino’s character. He gives the Rhino a memorable voice and the heart of the character even feels consistent with Peter Milligan’s indelible “Flowers for Rhino” story back in Tangled Web some years ago.

Slott’s issues are middling. They seem to focus more on the larger, overall plot of the series (which is meaningless to me, as I haven’t read everything to keep up, and this didn’t make me interested enough to start caring). There are some things I don’t like about Slott’s writing. I’m tired of how many times he has Spider-Man tell us that his Spider-Sense is tingling, and I’m just not down with the incessant, melodramatic chatter that goes on during action sequences, or when characters narrate their actions.

He also portrays Spider-Man as a bit of a jerk, as someone who uses his friends to do stuff for him, and who feels okay with playing the field when it comes to women. I get that most people probably wouldn’t think twice about that, but there’s a part of me that just feels like Spidey should be one of the last bastions of the wholesome superhero. It’s disappointing, and while Kelly’s issues are enjoyable, the package as a whole is forgettable.

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet v. 3 – Vulture and Morbius by Fred Van Lente, Greg Weisman, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, Joe Kelly, and various artists – The third installment of The Gauntlet isn’t a whole lot better than the second. Morbius only shows up for half an issue, which is misleading based on the title. Paul Azaceta does some nice art for a two-parter written by Waid and Peyer featuring the new Vulture. It’s decently-executed, but again, lacks a satisfying resolution. I suppose that’s something more noticeable when reading the trades, as opposed to weekly installments of a serialization. I also thought it was a little overly melodramatic the way J. Jonah Jameson goes out of his way (holding a press conference, no less) in order to humiliate Peter Parker on a professional level, especially when Peter’s intentions were good. I know Jameson is supposed to be a jerk, but I felt that this was some unnecessarily melodramatic overreaction on his part. It’s rather artificial, as though the writers are just trying to pile dogcrap on Spidey just to show us that he’s got it that bad in life.

Tom Peyer does write a fun little Jameson short story about a wannabe villain kidnapping him. It’s a pretty silly story, but fun and true-to-character. Greg Weisman (the Gargoyles guy, I believe) contributes a realistic issue about Flash Thompson dealing with losing his legs from the war in the Middle East. It’s surprisingly heartfelt, and probably one of the more interesting subplots going on in the series. Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara also do a one-off issue with the Rhino that serves as a tragic epilogue to their story from the previous volume. That’s the sort of sad-sack Spider-Man story that really works, (especially compared to how things are handled in the Vulture story) because it all flows so naturally from the characters and situations they face.

Ultimately, the Spider-Man-by-committee approach makes for some rough trades. Not every story is an Adrian Peterson. If I could find all of the Joe Kelly issues in a quarter bin somewhere, I’d pick them up. Otherwise, I can live without owning these books.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham – Level Up is a well-done coming of age tale about an Asian-American young man whose addiction to videogames makes it tough for him to live up to the expectations his parents have for him to become a doctor. These are some themes that Yang excels in communicating, as evidenced by his award-winning American Born Chinese comic from a few years back. Don’t think that Level Up is a rehash, though, because this comic has its own soul. It’s realism mixed with a bit of magical realism, as the main character communes with four silly little angels who poke and prod him on his way through life and med school. Pham’s watercolor-style art is attractive and his facial expressions and body language are superb. There’s humor, drama, sincere emotion, and actual character growth throughout Level Up. The ending is brilliant.

Two-Step by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner – Warren Ellis did a string of three-issue miniseries in the early 2000s, and they all had some really sharp high concepts. Two-Step’s high concept: “A weird romance with guns in three issues. He’s a Zen Gangster. She’s a wirehead camgirl. They don’t fight crime.” That right there tells you all you need to know. Taking place in a madcap, insanely multicultural and sci-fi London, Two-Step is full of rowdy action set pieces and Ellis’ blisteringly pithy witty dialogue. Heartily recommended to anyone who has a pulse.