REVIEW: Babyteeth #14 is contemplative AND hilarious

Babyteeth #14 is out 1/16/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Babyteeth #14 marks the return of one of AfterShock’s best comics. This series wasn’t on a hiatus. No, it’s last issue came out in late October. Factor in the crowded holiday season (those dreaded times when commitments other than comics rear their heads), and the book’s short break felt more like an extended skip month. Either way, the book is back now, and you know what? It’s as sharp as it's ever been.

What’s perhaps most noticeable is the humor in this issue’s script. Basically, after a two-month hiatus, Babyteeth is back, and so is writer Donny Cates, at his most hilarious and absurd. This is the clever, pithy scripting that Cates used to announce his arrival at Marvel so emphatically in late 2017 with his work on Doctor Strange and Thanos Wins. It’s the dialogue that sounds like a mix of films by Richard Linklater and Adam McKay, conversational in a lazy Texas sort of way but never far from a slapstick and hilarious one-liner.

And Cates puts that humor to great effect here as we finally meet the McGuffin of this story, satan, giving him a number of one liners that made me chuckle aloud, which is pretty rare for me to do when I’m reading a comic. He’s not the only one being funny here, though. Artists Garry Brown and Mark Englert get called on to draw a very late painting by Vincent Van Gogh, and they come back with an image that’s just perfect...disturbing in an absurd way, like something from a raunchier version of Beetlejuice.

All the jokes, however, are sort of a trojan horse for something much deeper: a contemplation of mankind’s perceptions of satan and god, which is then extended into a look at the very nature of good and evil, and how from a certain point of view it’s nigh impossible to tell which is which. And look...I know, I know...my hackles are up just writing that, but it’s not some kind of veiled diatribe about the media or fake news or something hackneyed like that.

Cates and the Babyteeth team have a deep biblical interest. They aren’t saying anything here about how the last Tweet you sent could be construed as both supportive and critical of whatever issue of the hour. This is a comic that after 14 issues is finding new thematic ground exploring the validity of some of society’s deep abiding perceptions about morality as shaped by our ideas of the being that created us.

And look, I know what we’re talking about here: a comic called Babyteeth that in the first issue probably (I forget) had a scene where the baby spit up and it caused an earthquake, or locust to fall from the sky or something. This isn’t Chaucer. It’s more fun than all that, and Cates know it. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to try to find some truth during the big goofy party. He is, after all, pretty great at that: see Thanos Wins and the Cosmic Ghost Rider character everyone loves so much, and see God Country, another comic in which his main writerly interests—Texas, theology, and badassery—work well in (very awesome) concert.   

Overall: An alternately hilarious and deep comic, Babyteeth #14 makes the best use of this comic’s concept yet. It’s filled with self-aware horror tropes that dance around real pathos and theology, and everyone involved is clearly having a blast with all of it. 8.5/10

Babyteeth #14
Writer:
Donny Cates
Artist: Garry Brown
Colorist: Mark Englert
Letterer: Taylor Esposito
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Isola #6 is the return of a great series

Isola #6  is out 1/16/2019.

Isola #6 is out 1/16/2019.

By Zack Quaintance —  Isola is one of Image’s most interesting comics, in that it stands out for being both utterly beautiful and massively decompressed (see The Warning). The thing I find most intriguing about Isola, however, is that as the book gorgeously reveals more of what’s happening, why things are happening, who are these characters, and the histories they share with one another, it doesn’t lose much (if any) of its tension.

There’s a concept in fiction I think about often called the rate of revelation, which says that one way to create suspense in a story is to carefully dole out vital information at a certain pace as the plot goes on. This, I believe, is the main strength of Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl’s writing in Isola. They also do a great job of giving the audience what they need to make key orienting assumptions before truths become clear. One early instance of this is how in the first issue the tiger is treated with reverence and called Your majesty. My immediate guess was that a monarch had been converted into a tiger...and I was hell bent on continuing to read until I found out whether I was right.

The other (and more evident/impressive) strength of this comic is what is arguably industry-best semi-regular art. I mean, just look at this screen grab from Isola #5.

The artwork (by Karl Karl Kerschl and Msassyk) in Isola is among the best being done in comics today. Above panel is from Isola #5.

But, friends, we are not here to talk Isola #5! Nor are we here to continue to discussing this comic in a super broad sense. We are, in fact here, to talk Isola #6, which marks a return after a hiatus and the start of the book’s second proper story arc (the Isola Vol. 1 trade is out now, btw, and as I wrote in our Top Comics to Buy for January 16, it’s one of those reasonably priced introductory Image ones, which means with $10 and a little more than an hour you can get all caught up on this fantastic comic…). And it’s quite a solid return, to be sure.

When we last left our two main protagonists—Olwyn, the tiger who wouldbe/is queen; and Captain Rook, charged with escorting her to a possibly magical place called Isola that also might be bad and could maybe not exist—they were encamped under a tarp in the rain after an ordeal that almost claimed the life of the queen. This issue is characteristically decompressed, dedicating its first seven pages (nearly ⅓ of the total) to a slow vision in which Olwyn interacts with her mother. It’s gorgeous, cut with the dreamlike blue hues that marked the last issue’s desperate end, and it also does some work in the plot, leaving me (at least) with a couple of key questions.

The first is maybe more obvious: what role did Olwyn’s family—her parents and erratic brother—play in her current danger and plight, and secondly, what is happening with the animals in this story, are they all as the queen humans banished (or escaped) into other forms? It’s a great question to raise, one that really has me engrossed in what’s happening in these pages. The other significant developments here are that we see yet again that the queen’s forces pose a threat to her and are also erroneously marching toward war in her name, and, perhaps more importantly, a small friend of Rook’s learns what’s going on. The plot, however, is less important than pointing out that Isola maintains the beautiful aesthetic and patient storytelling with ample revelats that have made its first volume such a joy. I’m pretty glad this comic is back.

Overall: Isola #6 is yet another gorgeous burst of sequential art from this creative team, more of the developing fantasy tale with its themes of loyalty, desperation, trust. This is the first issue back after hiatus, starting a new arc. I’m loving this title, and I encourage any with even mild interest to pick up this issue along with the $9.99 first volume Image trade. 8.5/10
Isola #6
Writers:
Brenden Fletcher / Karl Kerschl
Artists: Karl Kerschl / Msassyk
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

Top Comics to Buy for January 16, 2019

By Zack Quaintance — This was an interesting week for comics, in that many of the best creator-owned books coming out were well into their runs or midway into their first arcs. There are, of course, some interesting new #1 titles (there always as are, as that’s where the money is at, and all), including Adventure Time: Simon and Marcy, Black Widow, and Invaders. There’s also Marvel Comics Presents #1, which is the one I’m personally most interested in.

Still, great creator-owned books like Black Badge, Gideon Falls, Lodger, and Wic + Div all seem to be caught mid-arc. So, we’ve done what any good comics recommender would...read the issues and sorted them out and come up with some recommendations—even if there aren’t any good jumping on points to be had, except for Isola (more on that in a moment). We hope you’ll find it all helpful!

And now, onward to the comics!

Top Comics to Buy for January 16, 2019

*PICK OF THE WEEK*
Babyteeth #14
Writer:
Donny Cates
Artist: Garry Brown
Colorist: Mark Englert
Letterer: Taylor Esposito
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Price: $3.99
So, hey, welcome back, folks. How about that issue 13, huh? I told you it was bananas. Anyway, look, I'd like to be able to tell you this one is easier or nicer somehow, but real-ly...have any issues of this book not been insane and weird? Would you even believe me If I said it was? No. You wouldn't. So, yeah, this issue is more of all that. Plus: BETRAYAL! (Dramatic music cue!)
Why It’s Cool: This issue really teases out writer Donny Cates’ abilities as a humor writer, which were last seen this directly during his first Marvel work on Doctor Strange and Thanos. Meanwhile, artist Garry Brown also gets some great chances to shine here in what is the first issue back after a bit of a break, using his design skills to also get in on the humor tip. It’s not all laughs though—this issue also raises some pretty stark questions about the devil and God, and, by extension, about our concepts of good and evil. Basically, this is the first issue in a while that really makes good on the immense promise Babyteeth had at launch way back when, so much so it makes me absolutely elated I stuck with this series.

Black Panther #8
Writer:
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artist: Kev Walker
Colorist: Stephane Paitreau
Letterer: VC’s Joe Sabino
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99
"THE INTERGALACTIC EMPIRE OF WAKANDA: THE GATHERING OF MY NAME" Part 2 For years, the Maroons have lain dormant, planning the next stage of their rebellion. At last, it is time to strike - with a treasure hunt for unstable Vibranium! And with the Black Panther once again in their ranks, they're certain of victory. But what will victory cost? When the chips are down, will the Maroons rise to heroism, or are they doomed by the trauma of their past?
Why It’s Cool: Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates just keeps getting better and better at the comics game, and while his best work may be taking place over in Captain America, his current bonkers intergalactic arc on Black Panther is really no slouch. It’s a bit hard to make out what exactly is going on here—my guess is something funny with a wormhole...thank you to the Shuri title for the tip—but the imagination involved with the story is absolutely off the charts. Kev Walker also returns for another issue, which I’m all about because I thought Black Panther #7 was stunning.  

Electric Warriors #3
Writer:
Steve Orlando
Artist: Travel Foreman
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99
The revolution starts now! Inceptor accidentally digs too far into the memories of the Electric Warrior from Gil'Dishpan and uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of the Covenant. The planet games are meant to bring profit and keep the various peoples across the galaxies in check, rather than encourage peace and cooperation. If Inceptor can convince the other Warriors of what he's learned, it might just spark the revolution that will free a galaxy.
Why It’s Cool: Simply put, Electric Warriors is the Big 2 comic right now that not enough people are talking about. It’s an impeccably-told future-set tale with a savage sci-fi concept. This issue pushes that concept a step further by—well, I won’t tip into spoiler territory but I will tell you that you should without question be reading this book. Especially if you fancy yourself any sort of DC Comics continuity buff, or even a hardcore DC fan.  

Isola #6
Writers:
Brendan Fletcher / Karl Kerschl
Artists: Karl Kerschl / Msassyk
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
Olwyn has returned from the land of the dead, but did she return alone? The journey to Isola continues...NOW BI-MONTHLY!
Why It’s Cool: Isola is the best-looking comic coming out today (with apologies to The Dreaming), and this is the start of a new arc. The first trade is out there at the super reasonable $9.99 Image introductory price. It’s also a fairly decompressed comic, which means that with $10 and an afternoon, you can get caught up for this new jumping on point. And trust me when I tell you it’s very much worth. Not only is the art absolutely stunning, but the world is well-built and the characters compelling. The narrative is also paced with a rewarding rate of revelation, doling out enough to stay interesting without ever tipping into overly wordy dumping of exposition.

Superman #7
Writer:
Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Ivan Reis, Brandon Peterson, and Jason Fabok
Inker: Oclair Albert
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99
It's the moment you've been waiting for: the shocking return of the son of Superman! A year spent traveling the stars changed Jon Kent. Are parents Clark and Lois ready for the all-new, all-different Superboy? Secrets are revealed, a new look debuts and Superman's world is changed forever!
Why It’s Cool: There’s a reason that Brian Michael Bendis dueling runs on Action Comics and Superman made our Top 5 Comics of 2018: they’re both really really good. Action grabbed me right away, but I must admit it took just a tiny bit longer for Superman to really reel me in. Now that it has, however, I just can’t get enough of this book. Superman #7 is another fantastic installment with top-tier art and a plot that keeps the pages turning. It also has something that Bendis is proving himself impressively adept at: a new iconic moment largely shaped by logical ways in which the rest of the city, Earth, or galaxy would come to view someone as powerful and benevolent as our guy Clark Kent. These are exciting and special superhero comics, and I feel lucky to be reading them in real time as they come out.

Top New #1 Comics

  • Adventure Time: Simon and Marcy #1

  • Black Hammer Director’s Cut #1

  • Black Widow #1

  • Invaders #1

  • Marvel Comics Presents #1

Others Receiving Votes

  • A Walk Through Hell #7

  • Amazing Spider-Man #13

  • Black Badge #6

  • Catwoman #7

  • Conan the Barbarian #2

  • Detective Comics #996

  • Gideon Falls #10

  • Hawkman #8

  • Ironheart #2

  • Lodger #3

  • Middlewest #3

  • Supergirl #26

  • Venom #10

  • Warning #3

  • Wicked + Divine #41

See our past top comics to buy here, and check our our reviews archive here.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.


Comic of the Week: Euthanauts #5 establishes this series as a truly special comic

Euthanauts #5 is out 1/9/2019.

By d. emerson eddy — Every once in a while a comic comes along that changes the landscape. Something that redraws a neighborhood or delivers a new map. Sometimes it's just a few new houses that no one's seen before, other times it's an entire continent. Watchmen, Sandman, The Walking Dead, Hellboy, Preacher, American Flagg, The Vision, Spawn, Sin City, The Invisibles, From Hell...each of these works charted new regions and territories for comics storytelling to go into, sometimes in simple ways, other times profound. Euthanauts is one such title, charting a new course into an undiscovered country of thanateros.

This series has been one about acceptance. Of death. Of love. Of change. Of identity. Individually and all together in numerous permutations. Of Thalia coming to accept her strange nature and using it to try to help people. It spirals out into the strange, but always snaps back to stark reality.

This is never more apparent than through the artwork of Nick Robles and Eva de la Cruz. Robles is a genius of perspective and design, working through the weird of deathspace to the continued infection of Oscar's personality upon the world. His style through this series has reminded me a lot of both Jill Thompson and John Ridgway's work, with beautiful character designs, but still having a real grit to the presentation. Particularly impressive are his double page spreads, creating his own maps as Thalia and Mercy reforge their own connection and Mercy tries to explain the impossible. Atop Robles line art, de la Cruz's colours enhance and deepen the weird and mundane.

It's all grounded, though, through the narration provided by writer Tini Howard. The script is full of beautiful, mad ideas, but it's measured through simple concepts, observations of nature, tiny facts that keep us thinking about normal things while working through the connections to the stranger, broader fanciful ideas of deathspace. Or having an identity subsumed by a relative whose ego is too large to let go after he dies, whose dialogue is interestingly represented by a different font and word balloon approach from letterer Neil Uyetake. It's also often funny as hell as symbolic representations of what might happen in the real world spontaneously manifest. There's a very interesting exploration in this issue of the core concept of the title, as represented in Thalia presenting Circe's wishes for her funeral/remains to handled. To experience a happy death. And there are killer Bowie references.

Overall, Tini Howard, Nick Robles, Eva de la Cruz, and Neil Uyetake have crafted something unique here. Delving into death and dying from a different perspective that requires a bit of reflection and understanding to deal with, similar to how loss can strike us in profound and unexpected ways. All while opening up a new avenue to explore human connections and family. It's been beautiful and strange.

Euthanauts #5
Writer:
Tini Howard
Artist: Nick Robles
Colorist: Eva de la Cruz
Letterer: Neil Uyetake
Publisher: IDW - Black Crown
Price: $3.99

Check out past Comic of the Week selections by d. emerson eddy on the list page.

d. emerson eddy is a student and writer of things. He fell in love with comics during Moore, Bissette, & Totleben's run on Swamp Thing and it has been a torrid affair ever since. His madness typically manifests itself on twitter @93418.

TRADE RATING: Is This Guy For Real - The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown

From Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by writer/artist Box Brown.

By Zack Quaintance — I’ve had an interest in enigmatic comedian/performance artist/professional wrestler Andy Kaufman since I was a child. Kaufman first came to my attention via the promotional blitz for the 1999 biopic, Man on the Moon. Jim Carrey (a massive star at that time) played Kaufman. I was a pre-adolescent then, absorbing my news through the daily paper and via TV. Carrey, and by extension Kaufman, were all over the entertainment coverage for weeks.

I asked my mom about Kaufman. She’d been a fan of his in the ‘70s and ‘80s (although knowing what I know now, she didn’t get him, not really), owing to his slapstick role on the TV sitcom Taxi and some brief appearances he’d made pantomiming the theme to Mighty Mouse on Saturday Night Live. My mom bought me a biography of Kaufman—Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme—for Christmas that year, and probably thought little of it thereafter.

I, meanwhile, devoured the book at a too-young age, learning all that I could about Kaufman and internalizing his deep commitment to his art, to honoring his formative childhood interests even if doing so was only entertaining to him (this is perhaps why I obsessively edit a website about comics I created in my spare time, but that’s another story…). This is all a verbose introduction to last year, when I came across writer/artist Box Brown’s latest original graphic novel, Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.

I found it at the Laughing Ogre comic book store in Columbus, Ohio (a fantastic little shop), and snapped it right up. As a long-time Kaufman devotee, I was absolutely delighted to not only find the book, but to read it cover to cover in a single sitting, so engrossed was I in Brown’s simple-yet-thorough rendering of the late performance artist’s life.

In my opinion, there are two ways that stories about Kaufman and his life should be approached. Kaufman was famously devoted to his characters and bits, maintaining kayfabe (as they call it in the wrestling world) and often only showing his true self to his closest family and friends. He was, in other words, always doing a bit. So, the first way a work about Kaufman can handle things is to embrace that no-winking meta aesthetic (the excellent Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond does this to an extent). The other way is to be the straight man, so to speak, sorting through the reality of Andy’s life.

Brown opts for the latter, which proves extremely effective for his no-frills illustrative style. Brown also makes a rare choice in terms of the greater body of post-death Kaufman stories: he focuses most-heavily on Andy’s dabbling in pro wrestling. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Brown’s most famous work is still arguably Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, in which he gives similar autobiographical treatment to the late massive wrestler in the excellent 2014 book, which was also published by First Second. This is not to say that Brown only focuses on Andy’s wrestling (Elvis and bongos and Tony Clifton are also there), but it is noticeably more prevalent in his telling than in other Kaufman biographies, so much so it’s pretty clear it was a deliberate choice.

What most impressed me about this choice on Brown’s part was that not only did he focus on the dabbling in professional wrestling that eventually marked most of Kaufman’s life (even if the vast majority of post-mortem films and books tend to focus on SNL and Taxi, same as casual fans like my mom), but he also drew through-lines in the rest of Kaufman’s life that connect directly to the eventual participation in wrestling.

In Is This Guy for Real? we see Kaufman as a wrestling fan at a young age. We even learn that he injured his neck somewhat seriously practicing moves with his brother (this tidbit was new to me). We see how his comedic style overlapped with wrestling, how rooting for the villains made him almost indifferent to the reactions of his audience, and how his practice of transcendental meditation encouraged him to embrace his pure personality (I also practice TM and can attest to it doing that). This last point is a significant one because it also enables Brown’s story to show flaws and a bit of darkness in Kaufman (important for any biographical work so as not to feel like polishing a halo), specifically in how the performer often derived sexual pleasure from wrestling with women.

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman was first published 2/6/2018 by First Second.

Overall, the focus on wrestling feels like one that Brown settled on early. It even factors into his title. The era during which Kaufman performed was one wherein the zeitgeist itself was still asking whether wrestling was for real. Brown (rightly) in my opinion zeroes in on that idea and uses it as a roadmap through Andy’s life, complete with a diversion here or there into the life of Andy’s in-ring wrestling foil (and real life good buddy) Jerry “The King” Lawler. This wise and savvy decision is what, in my opinion, leads to Brown doing such compelling work in Is This Guy For Real?

This OGN would be especially compelling for a total Kaufman newbie, but even for someone who has read and watched as much about Kaufman as myself, this proves to be one engrossing read, a refreshing and sensical way to understand a comedian who worked so hard to obscure his true self. Much credit is owed to the writer and artist for not only deciphering the larger strokes of Kaufman’s life but for also finding the more nuanced influences that others who’ve sought to tell his story have missed. I’m not sure it’s possible for there to be a definitive biographical work about Kaufman’s life, shrouded in confusion as it was (some still insist he faked his own death), but I think Brown’s graphic novel is firmly in the upper echelon.

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman
Writer/Artist:
Box Brown
Publisher: First Second
Price: $19.99 US / $25.99 CAN
Released: Feb. 6, 2018

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

The Saga Re-Read #23: Saga #23 is heavy with betrayals (plural)

Saga #23 was released 9/24/2014.

By Zack Quaintance — Here we are at Saga #23, the penultimate issue of this story’s dour fourth arc. I have to admit, upon first reading this series, this arc was not my favorite, which in retrospect is a testament to how accurately writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples convey the marital discord. I didn’t like this arc—which follows a time jump—because the romance and resultant little family was so severely threatened by problems I myself could relate to.

Murderous cosmic bounty hunters and robot nobles who can turn their arms into cannon are scary, theoretically, but wanting to escape one's routine for something more exciting? Well, that was a threat I could easily see in my own life. I’ve been ready for it this second time through though, and so I’ve enjoyed this arc quite a bit more, coming to understand how pivotal it is within the plot. What is this touching romance worth if it’s not tested on its own merits, rather than an increasingly wacky parade of independent threats? It’s hard to say. The fact that mundanity is as difficult as the extreme makes the love feel more authentic and the story all the more engrossing.    

Anyway, on to the individual elements!

Saga #23

Here is the official preview text for Saga #23, which was first released back on Sep. 24, 2014. I don’t want to call it time travel, not exactly, but it’s starting to feel wild that our weekly reading schedule is moving at a faster pace than the issues came out (it makes perfect sense, obviously, but still…)...

Betrayal.

Whoa. It’s just one word, but what a word! I once had a friend I hadn’t seen in a number of years come visit me somewhat out of the blue. He’d been living with a woman in New Orleans, and when he got by me in Austin, he drank like crazy and didn’t want to sleep, like at all. When I asked him how his life was going, he told me, “There’s been a betrayal.” I haven’t seen him since. Anyway, onward to this issue of Saga!

The Cover: Perhaps it's the meta nature of this cover’s concept, but I think this is one of those occasional Saga covers that can stand alone as an independent work of art, independent of its association with these characters and this series. It’s not as politically relevant as some of the other covers that fit this description, but a hunchback plant woman with an obscured face in reality but a pretty and concentrated look in the canvas reaching out and into her work to paint herself—my head just exploded, but still, my point is this concept and cover are intriguing.  

The First Page: Sticking with the one-word pattern established by this issues preview text...salacious. This issue opens with Marko’s flirtation—the dance teacher and kindred mom spirit he met bringing his kid to the park—leaning casually in the doorway of what is presumably her home, wearing naught but a concert t-shirt (The Mistook) and a come hither look as she says, Why am I not surprised to see you? This arc has promised us marital complications, and with the last issue ending with Marko being tossed from his home after pelting his wife with a bag of groceries, well, none of this is good for our little family, none of it at all.

This first page conveys the biggest threat the little family has faced yet: relatable marital discord.

The Surface: This issue moves forward our various plotlines, curiously pitting Marko’s pelting Alana with a bag of groceries in a fit of rage against Alana’s descent into drug use. I suppose it’s not the story doing this so much as the ghost babysitter character Izabel. Either way, it’s an interesting juxtaposition, and the main case the character is making here is that both have a vast potential to damage a child and ruin a family, which is the central conflict of this arc. Also, Izabel has the ultimate high ground to make any point about ruination she wants, having herself been a victim of the conflict between Marko and Alana’s two sides, ultimately losing her life. Anyway, things really move here, to the point the promised separation between Marko and Alana (which turns out to be literal) occurs at the end of the issue, with Marko and Prince Robot IV coming face-to-face.

The Subtext: There’s some heavy subtext about the ongoing forever war here, and the way that regular members of society enable it. I’m thinking specifically of when the drug pusher/costume designer from The Circuit tells the kidnapper, Even if I could get you on the air, once you start ranting about politics, ninety percent of your audience is just going to change the channel. This wasn’t as painful to read as the first time I came across it, back in the halcyon political times of 2014, but now with a reality star wrecking brutal chaos in the White House, it hits so much harder. The drug pusher goes a step further to suggest Marko and Alana are analogous of the wings and horns higher powers, propagating a fake war while hooking up behind the scenes in an effort to oppress the common man. This is an idea I don’t recall being revisited often (although in many ways this very notion is why higher powers don’t want Hazel’s existence getting out), but I think it’s ripe for further exploration once this book returns from its hiatus.

The Art: Fiona Staples does an incredible bit of work here with facial expressions, using almost every central characters face to convey feeling and set individual tones within the plot. Here are some of my favorite instances of this....

The Foreshadowing: There’s not really all that much in here. Hazel makes a disparaging comment about her dance teacher, which sort of hints at how that woman’s role develops in the family mythology moving forward, but other than that, this issue is short on hints about the future.

Saga #23
Writer:
Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Letterer: Fonografiks
Publisher: Image Comics

Check out past installments of our Saga Re-Read.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

Brubaker and Phillips' Criminal: Crafting a crime masterpiece

By Taylor Pechter — A common adage in pop culture is everyone is the hero of their own story, no matter if the person is inherently good, bad, or somewhere between. From 2006 to 2016, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips redefined the landscape of crime comics with a multi-volume anthology series simply titled, Criminal. The stories within followed the exploits of criminals, from bank robbers to a boxer turned mob enforcer, asking readers to sympathize with horrible people before showing them that even bad guys are human.

It’s this humanity that is the key to the entire series. This week, Brubaker and Phillips returned with their latest volume of Criminal, which marks the eighth overall (read a review of this week’s Criminal #1). The new comic has, unsurprisingly, been met with a wave of critical acclaim, so much so I think it’s already appropriate to call it a success. With so many fans enjoying the series’ latest story, I’d like to take a look today at past volumes, their plots, and some thematic throughlines that appear.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 1: Coward

Leo Patterson is a crook trying to turn things around. After a botched heist, he tries to quit the business. With his dad behind bars, his mom dead, and his drug-addled uncle living with him, Leo’s life is not in the best place.

As he says, “I am scared of ending up like my father. Scared of dying where I most likely belong... in prison. But the way I see it… if you aren’t afraid in our line of work then you aren’t thinking. And I won’t work with people who don’t use their brains before bullets… as a rule at least.”

This lesson about rules is what drives Leo’s story as he is lured back to heists by a former associate of his father. The job is to rob an armored car carrying a briefcase of blood diamonds. The heist eventually hits a snag. A firefight ensues, and Leo’s partner, Greta, is shot. To make things worse, the take wasn’t diamonds—it was a briefcase of uncut heroin. As the story winds down, Leo’s uncle dies from overdose after finding the heroin despite Leo hiding it. Greta also dies from her wounds, and Leo confronts a corrupt cop that was involved in the heist, which eventually leads to his death.

Overall, Leo’s story is one of guilt, regret, and failure to live up to expectations. It’s guilt that ultimately leads to his end.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 2: Lawless

Tracy Lawless is a man out to find the truth. After spending 18 months in prison for desertion, he escapes and seeks the story behind his brother Ricky’s death. To obtain this info he joins Ricky’s crew and grows close to Ricky’s former flame, Mallory. As they grow closer, however, he only grows more dedicated to his mission. This eventually drives them apart, and Mallory joins a coven.

Throughout the story, Ricky has flashbacks about his brother along and his relationship with his father, Teegar “Teeg” Lawless (who appears in this week’s new Criminal #1). These flashbacks show how both Tracy and Ricky grew to be different and ultimately the same. When Mallory spills the truth during the ending, it hits it home. Ricky’s story is a somber one: A boy hardened by his mobster father surviving on the streets, joining a heist crew, falling in love, and getting in over his head. He gets the score and tries to leave town only to be gunned down by the person he loves. However, instead of vengeance, Tracy instead practices atonement—he lets Mallory go and accepts her actions.

Overall, Tracy’s story is one of coming to terms with and ultimately accepting the truth. It is also a tale of no matter how much you try, you can’t escape family, even when there is no one left but you.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and the Dying

Unlike the previous two volumes, Vol. 3 includes three intertwined stories.

The first focuses on prize boxer Jake “Gnarly” Brown and his rise through the ranks of the Hyde criminal empire. This story follows his exploits along with his employer, Sebastian Hyde, son of influential mob boss Walter Hyde. As time goes on, Gnarly and Sebastian grow apart after they both fall in love with the same woman, Danica. To make matters worse, Sebastian impregnates Danica, increasing that rift. As Gnarly lays in a hospital bed at the end of the story after an ambush by Walter Hyde’s men, he gives Sebastian his final words, sending him on his way as he languishes in the hospital.

Overall, Gnarly’s story is one of friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. After Sebastian impregnates Danica, he feels betrayed, not only by his employer but by one of his closest friends. His life as a boxer is also over, giving him nothing to return to.

The second story follows Teeg Lawless as he returns from Vietnam and re-enters life underground, soon learning he owes a debt to a casino owner. Teeg has to collect two thousand dollars in two weeks or else face consequences. As the story continues, Teeg struggles in fast jobs such as knocking over gas stations. Nearing the end, he contemplates what his life would be like if his kids ended up like him.

Overall, Teeg’s story is one of a father’s dedication. Most of his inner thoughts are about his wife and kids, and how they would react to his life as a criminal. Much like his child Tracy’s story in the previous volume, the thread of family is key to this one as well.

The third and final story centers on Danica, a dancer, who was a girl growing up Christian house. She eventually fell into drugs, got kicked out, and became a dancer. As she grows older, she learns how to use her sexuality. This helps her gain the attention of Sebastian Hyde. From there, her story intertwines with that of Gnarly Brown.

Overall, Danica’s story is one of outgrowing the naivety of youth and becoming an adult. Not only that, it is one of love and its effect on people.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 4: Bad Night

This story focuses on a struggling comic strip artist who is haunted by his own creation. In it, he is suddenly thrown into a complicated situation after a mob handoff goes wrong. Jacob Kurtz is an insomniac and former counterfeiter whose wife was killed when she lost control and drove off a ravine.

One night at a diner, he sees a woman and her boyfriend fighting. This woman is named Iris and her boyfriend Danny. Danny is abrasive, a trait that is a main lynchpin of the story. As Jacob confronts him, he is egged on by Frank Kafta, Private Eye, who is actually his comic strip creation, basically a perverse Jiminy Cricket. As time goes on, Danny and Iris plan on using Jacob’s counterfeit techniques to forge an FBI ID so Danny can hand off the money to the Triad.

Things go south, however, and Iris not only shoots Jacob but also shoots and kills Danny. She is rattled and decides to leave Jacob. However, she also has a deeper secret. As the story ends, Jacob finds that Iris was in fact working for the police undercover. As they drive off, Jacob loses control and drives off a cliff, killing Iris and severely injuring himself.  As he lies in his bed, all wrapped up, not only is his life as an artist over, but his creation Frank Kafta also leaves the room.

Overall, Jacob’s story is one of accepting loss and overcoming demons. His wife’s death and his subsequent blame for it shook him to his core. This trauma leads him to create the Frank Kafta character, a specter throughout the story. As the story ends, Kafta leaves his room, leaving Jacob to finally learn to move on.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 5: The Sinners

This volume sees the return of Tracy Lawless. As notable crime figures, including Sebastian Hyde, drop like flies, Lawless is sent to find the killers. To make matters more complicated, a CID agent is hunting Tracy for his military desertion charge. Not only that, Tracy is also having an affair with Hyde’s wife. As the search unfolds, his main lead is a priest named Father Mike. As Tracy gets close to answers, everything catches up to him. Not only does the CID agent find him, Hyde also gains more suspicious of his actions. Eventually, the truth of Father Mike is revealed.

Overall, Tracy’s story continues to be one of family and the effect a father has on sons. It is also one of truth and accepting your place in the world. Throughout the story, Tracy continuously feels shame over becoming more like his father. He fears that his father’s self-destruction will eventually lead to his own discovery of the fate of his brother.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent

The past is often remembered as a time of innocence. You mess around with friends, hook up with crushes, and maybe try things you shouldn’t. In reality, the past catches up to you, pretty much always, and the past can be harsh.

That is the tale of Riley Richards in Criminal Vol. 6. Riley was one of the most popular kids in the city of Brookview. Along with friends Liz, Felix, and Freakout, he formed a close group. Things become difficult when Riley starts getting wind of a possible affair between his now-wife Felix, and Teddy, his childhood rival. He plans to kill his wife. The story of Riley is told expertly not only in the modern day, but also through Archie-esque flashbacks that show a more whimsical side to Riley’s memories. This is a credit to Sean Phillips, who creates a great disconnect between that time and the present day. Not only that, bur Dave Stewart also provides colors that contrast perfectly with the dark palate that Val Staples puts forward in the present day. After Felix is murdered, Riley grows closer to Liz and Teddy sits behind bars, convicted of the act.

Overall, Riley’s story is one of nostalgia and its effect on the mind. The past is always looked upon as happy-go-lucky. As he remembers these moments, he soon realizes that his memories are wrong, and most of the time, life deals you hands you can’t win.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 7: Wrong Time, Wrong Place

It’s easier to be a fictional character. How sad is that?

This goes through the mind of young Tracy Lawless as he flees with his gang after throwing a rock through an attic window. This question also drives the narrative of this seventh volume of Criminal—Wrong Time, Wrong Place. There are two stories collected in this volume, one of Teeg Lawless’s time in jail prior to his release, and the second of a sort of road trip which includes his teenage son, Tracy.

While both stories are simple, Brubaker weaves in a unique storytelling device: the comics both of them read. Teeg reads a Conan-esque character named Zanger while Tracy reads a Kung-Fu and Teen Wolf hybrid named Fang, the Kung Fu Werewolf. Both comics inform who the men are, directly reflecting their personalities and development. Teeg is a criminal through and through. He doesn’t take anything from anyone and you better not get in his way. On the other hand, Tracy is a teenager with a criminal dad he hates and doesn’t want to become. Sadly, as this story closes, we as readers know from other volumes that Tracy’s life is destined to be just like his father’s.

Overall, this final story hits home with a father-son dichotomy that has appeared often in previous volumes. The story of the Lawlesses is a tragic one, driving much of one of modern comics’ all-time great series.

In conclusion, Criminal is the premier crime comic series by the premier noir creative team. Ed Brubaker crafts tragic stories with relatable characters inhabiting a dark world. This dark world is illustrated perfectly by artist Sean Phillips, aided along the way by colorists Val Staples, Dave Stewart, and Elizabeth Breitweiser. Phillips not only adds grittiness but also experiments with style, adding new aspects to his art in each volume. All in all, Criminal stands out as not just a masterwork of noir, but a masterwork of comic book storytelling in general. We’re lucky to have it.

Read more of Taylor’s writing on our comics analysis page.

Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.

REVIEW: Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1 is a quieter Spidey book with big implications for SPOILER

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1 is out 1/9/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — I am generally opposed to comics like Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, a fourth Spidey title that takes its place in line behind the flagship Amazing Spider-Man, the rising and youthful Miles Morales: Spider-Man, the intriguing prestige Spider-Man: A Life Story (a six-issue mini about what it would have been like had Spider-Man aged from his creation in real-time), and the perpetual runner-up book, Spectacular Spider-Man. I know there are super fans out there who just can’t get enough of the character, but I find it all just a little much.

In fact, in all likelihood I’d have probably have skipped this book if it wasn’t written by Tom Taylor, who has a shining history of taking a little much ideas like this one and turning them into absolute gold (see Injustice, see X-Men: Red). The concept here is based around a hyper-local take on Peter Parker and his heroics, and the plot of this debut issue sees him literally tending to the troubles of his actual physical neighbors.

The main story in this comic (illustrated with clean adequacy by Juan Cabal) is totally fine. It’s not flashy and it’s mildly intriguing, featuring a nifty little mystery. There are some good jokes, and the book seems to go out of its way to let readers know its complimentary to Amazing Spider-Man, incorporating all the recent minor status quo shifts we’ve seen in that title. The latter is a really nice touch that a long-time superhero reader like myself appreciates. Nothing takes me out of a story more than when an auxiliary title for a Spider, Bat, X, or Superman title just outright ignores the status quo elsewhere in the line. It’s to Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man’s credit that it doesn’t do this.

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS BELOW

There are also some nice character moments here, showcasing Peter Parker as a micro-scale humanitarian, but they are nothing we haven’t seen before and seen often. What is likely to really get fans talking is the backup story, which is focused on and narrated by Peter’s Aunt May, iconic Aunt May. I don’t typically make a practice of revealing plot points in these reviews, but it’s hard to discuss this comic without doing so here. The backup story exists pretty much entirely to reveal that Aunt May is suffering from cancer.

This narrative weight is a good case for the book to make for its very existence, if a little unconvincing. I could be wrong, but it seems doubtful to me that a character as iconic as Aunt May would face any real danger in the pages of the third (or arguably fourth or fifth) most prominent Spider-Man title. In fact, in this day and age, I’d only really be convinced if one of these books was headed for a line-wide event or a milestone issue. Still, Tom Taylor is a powerful writer with a big heart, and, while I doubt Aunt May is in any real danger, I trust him to tell stories with this point that intrigue and satisfy on an emotional level.

Overall: In a quiet and polished debut, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1 does just enough to justify an addition to the Spidey line. A major development for a long-time character also happens in the backup story. It remains to be seen if this title will feel worthwhile moving forward, but Tom Taylor has done great things with lesser concepts, so for now I’m sticking with it. 7.0/10

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1
Writer:
Tom Taylor
Artist: Juan Cabal
Colorist: Nolan Woodward
Letterer: VC’s Travis Lanham
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $4.99
*Full credits aren’t clear for the backup, but the editor notes the team included Marcelo Ferreira, Robert Poggi, and Jim Campbell.

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

REVIEW: Criminal #1 is a gorgeous, modern classic crime comic

Criminal #1  is out 1/8/2019.

Criminal #1 is out 1/8/2019.

By Bo Stewart — Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips tell the best crime stories in comics. Period, and it’s not even close. This creative team has forged a partnership over many years and dozens of volumes of comics (their recently concluded series Kill or be Killed made our top comics of 2018). They understand each other perfectly, and it’s a joy to see how this deep creative understanding ultimately deepens the words they create. It’s on full display here for their latest book, Criminal #1. Simply put, missing this comic would be criminal (please forgive me).

There’s something distinctly satisfying about Brubaker/Phillips comics, in that they somehow manage to provide the exact right amount of content. I never feel short changed, but the comic also never overstays its welcome or ends up feeling bloated. In the single-issue format, that kind of satisfying consistency is quite the accomplishment. These guys are so good that, in my opinion, comic readers take them for granted. This issue serves as a reminder that this creative duo tells the stories with the best pacing in comics.

Criminal is long-form storytelling at its finest. Instead of focusing on a single character or narrative, the creators lean into the world they have created for inspiration. Previous volumes of this book have each focused on a single character or event set within the Criminal sandbox, a sprawling epic that covers decades of crime and generations of criminals affected by it. The world of Criminal is well established, fully deserving of the old the world is a character axiom. It’s a sandbox that the creators clearly enjoy playing in, and, if this issue is any indication, the world of Criminal won’t run out of worthwhile stories any time soon.

Full disclosure, I have not read the entirety of the original Criminal run. The four (of seven) volumes I have read were all amazing, though. I was a little hesitant about starting this new run without having first finished the others, but, rest assured, newcomers to the series will have no trouble keeping up. Each volume has been its own standalone story and it appears as though the new run will follow suit. These stories inform one another, but they are in no way dependent on one another.

This latest Criminal #1 focuses on Teeg Lawless. Previous fans will immediately gravitate towards the protagonist because Teeg is a figure that has loomed large over the series (his sons Tracy and Ricky Lawless are main characters of previous volumes). This is a story interested in the cyclical nature of crime and how strong it’s grasp can be. Crime doesn’t just affect the individual criminal, it infects entire families. The gangster’s son becoming a gangster is a tale as old as time, but one that will always be ripe for exploration.

Phillips continues to improve (if such a thing is even possible), and his line work has never been more detailed. Teaming up with colorist Jacob Phillips (who is his son) brings a different dimension to the art. Heavy use of blacks and neons (you know, noir stuff) really lends itself to the storytelling. It reminds me of Mat Hollingsworth’s colors on Wytches but without the paint splotches. I have no reservations just coming out and saying it: this is Phillips’ prettiest book yet.

Overall: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal #1 is a perfect continuation of a crime series that ranks as a modern classic. If you enjoy crime fiction, in any format, this one is an absolute must read. 9.5/10

Criminal #1
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Penciler: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

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Bo grinds for the Man by day so he can create comics by night. He is the lesser half of the Stewart Brothers writing team and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @stewart_bros

REVIEW: Gunning for Hits #1 is a fascinating, if esoteric, look at the music BUSINESS

Gunning for Hits #1 is out 1/9.

By Zack Quaintance — The debut issue of Gunning for Hits has some heavy narrative lifting to do. This is, of course, by its own design. Gunning for Hits #1 is a normal-sized comic that essentially sets out to orient readers within two worlds: the always-tricky one of a new story (with its own setting, tone, characters, rules of reality, etc.), as well as the dense fiduciary side of the music business during the transitional (cassettes/vinyl to CDs) 1980s. Given the nature of this book—it’s a crime comic about the music business, after all—there is, of course, overlap. Still, the dual exposition makes for a relatively dense first issue.

Simply put, it’s a lot to read. It’s also fortunately a really interesting read, especially for anyone like myself who has dabbled in unhealthy or obsessive music fandom, to the point that just enjoying songs wasn’t enough and there grew a compulsion to learn about individual labels, promoters, etc. What Gunning for Hits seems bent on doing is pulling back that curtain in as entertaining a fashion as possible, and there are indications in this debut that the creative pair of new writer Jeff Rougvie and artist Mortit just might have the plan and artistic chemistry needed to pull it off.

Rougvie, for one, has the music business cred for this to be taken seriously by anyone with a passing interest in how their favorite hits were made for many years. You can find more on Jeff Rougvie’s website, as well as in the back matter of this first issue, but long story short: he’s been in the industry for decades, making things happen behind the scenes and most-famously working with David Bowie. To a certain type of person with an interest in both comics and music, it’s an incredibly lucky thing that someone with Rougvie’s resume is so motivated to tell a story with this medium that shares his vast insights and knowledge. Another fortunate thing is that he’s found an artist like Moritat who so clearly gets what Rougvie is trying to do here and is game to provide visuals. There’s a lot of text, and Moritat’s work deftly weaves around it, adding a grimy aesthetic to the proceedings and shining when it’s called upon to do so. It’s a great visual foundation for the esoteric knowledge Rougvie is dropping.

Readers shouldn’t, however, expect a light or overly-accessible read, especially not for those who have only a casual interest in music. This is specific stuff for people with some background related to at least part of its subject matter, be it music, or business, or both. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to interview Rougive about this book for ComicsBeat, and he cited Think Tank’s level of specificity as comparable to that found in Gunning for Hits, and there’s a lot of truth to that. Whereas Think Tank (a great and underrated comic, btw) relied heavily on military research and future-facing science, Gunning for Hits builds its own narrative atop bygone financial practices of a now-smaller business. It’s interesting stuff, to be sure, but it may have to work a little harder to win over any readers who aren’t initially intrigued by its premise.

Ultimately, whether or not Rougvie and Moritat are able to translate Rougvie’s music business insider status into a successful story that finds an audience will hinge on whether they can make a broader connection to the implications of capitalism on society at large, drawing a metaphor between the time and events in their story and our lives today. They’ve picked the right setting to do it—the greed is good 1980s—and the right aesthetic—crime. With my own propensity for getting lost in details and my love of music, I’m definitely compelled to keep reading.

Overall: Writer Jeff Rougvie and artist Moritat spend the majority of Gunning for Hits #1 orienting readers within the depths of the music business. They also lay some groundwork for the crime aspects of their story, which have the potential to be equally as engaging. It remains to be seen whether this act will harmonize in a way that results in chants for an encore, but there are some unique ingredients here that could make for a great comics story. 8.0/10

Gunning for Hits #1
Writer:
Jeff Rougvie
Artist: Moritat
Letterer: Casey Silver
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.