TRADE RATING: Cullen Bunn’s Witch Hammer is brutal and beautiful

AfterShock Comics’ first OGN, Witch Hammer, is out now.

By Hussein Wasiti — In my adventures through Comics Twitter, I’ve frequently come across praise for writer Cullen Bunn, who recently penned AfterShock Comics first original graphic novel, Witch Hammer. My familiarity with Bunn and his work extends only to his Big Two comics, and I’ve been anxious to check out some of his other comics for a while. After reading Witch Hammer, I’m glad I did. While there’s nothing wrong with Bunn’s more mainstream work, this story just completely elevated my perception of him as a storyteller, so much so that I’m now inspired to seek out more of his independent work. Witch Hammer is bloody, brutal, and beautiful, with a message that might leave your skin crawling after you put the book down.

Witch Hammer is a horror story that follows Agent Ada Frontenac and her partner Agent Guinness as they investigate a series of gruesome murders, which they believe are all tied into some kind of cult. As it turns out, the truth surrounding the case is something that Frontenac and her partner have a hard time grappling with, especially when they learn who exactly is carrying out these murders and why this man is on his quest for revenge. Our two main characters are ultimately Frontenac herself and the killer, Jacob Nance. Both of their journeys are tied together without the other truly realizing this to be the case.

Frontenac is clearly a woman of faith, albeit one who is struggling with her beliefs. She’s been investigating murders for a while, and her introduction is very deftly handled by artist Dalibor Talajic in a beautiful nine-panel page, one of the few in the book. Bunn doesn’t explicitly state what is going through her head, but Talajic’s deft and efficient storytelling gives readers just enough visual context to understand her headspace. Frontenac overall comes across as a hopeful person who believes justice will be done and those who deserve salvation will receive it. This results in a very personal kind of conflict for her since the longer she investigates murders, the more she questions this line of belief. Her first page features her throwing her cross necklace on her bed, where it lands atop a gruesome crime scene photo. It’s a stark juxtaposition and the perfect encapsulation of not just this comic, but the state of mind of this main character.

I was blown away by Talajic’s work throughout. I’d only previously read his Foolkiller series over at Marvel, but his panelling and overall storytelling was very strong. He uses a lot of panels per page, with an average of around seven or eight, and sometimes as many as eleven. With this, the storytelling was very focused and overall he made great economical use of space. I described his layouts as deft and efficient earlier, and that applies to his entire approach to this story. There is a lot of violence in this book, executed by the characters almost dismissively, and the numerous and precise panel layouts contribute to this element of the story in a really exact manner.

Talajic’s layouts are very restrictive, and readers may find themselves feeling claustrophobic. This could very well be the Talajic’s intention—to create a feeling of cramped unease with the layouts. There are some nine-panel pages here that Talajic lays out a bit differently than one would expect, which I found incredibly refreshing due to many modern artists rarely using the nine-panel page in a substantial way. Sebastijan Camagajevac’s amazing coloring also sets the tone of the story perfectly, while letterer Marshall Dillon deserves substantial credit for managing to render the panels readable, due to their cramped sizes.

The carefully-vague nature of the story somewhat leaves the ending up to interpretation. Bunn is dealing with heavy themes in this book, namely the lines between religion and violence, and whether one intentionally or unintentionally begets the other. What lines can we cross before coming to some semblance of inner peace? When blinded by false promises, who are we to blame: ourselves, or those who lead us on our path to begin with?

Witch Hammer is pretty wonderful, although some who are squeamish to violence may want to steer clear. There are some truly horrifying images (it is a horror comic, after all) that some readers will not appreciate. I myself enjoyed it all quite a bit. Cullen Bunn’s compelling and horrific storytelling combined with Dalibor Talajic’s tight and suspenseful art have given us my favorite comic so far this year.

Witch Hammer
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Dalibor Talajic
Colorist: Sebastijan Camagajevac
Letterer: Marshall Dillon
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Released: Dec. 19, 2018

Check our reviews of other trade paperbacks and graphic novels in our reviews section!

Hussein Wasiti is a history undergraduate with an intense passion for comics. You can find his weekly writings over at comicsthegathering.com, and periodically on weirdsciencedccomics.com. He is on Twitter as bullthesis, and lives in Toronto with his hordes of comics.

TRADE RATING: How Mister Miracle by Tom King & Mitch Gerads Defies Escapist Entertainment

Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads is out 2/13/2019.

By Brandon Evans — The collected edition of Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads released this week, giving us all the change to read it collected in its entirety. I, like many others, first read this book at a pace of pretty close to once a month, with a few agonizing delays. Although, in retrospect, I think this periodical format may have added to the experience, helping me to better sympathize with Scott Free, aka Mister Miracle himself, who is unsure of his circumstances and surroundings, just like I was unsure what was happening in the overall narrative of the story at each chapter’s conclusion. That disorientation felt right in a way, given that Scott as a protagonist is unsure what the days he’s experiencing mean to the story of his overall life, or anti-life.

I could easily write a piece all about the qualities that make this 12-issue maxiseries so amazing, but I’m hesitant to go through that boom tube because I’d hate to spoil the series for the fortunate souls who get to read it with fresh eyes. To them I say just be ready to look at the mythic components of the Fourth World with a surprisingly fresh perspective—the Life and Anti-Life Equations are explained in such a simple, yet profound ways—you’ll see. It’s really hard to understate how well Tom King writes these concepts and characters. He shows us the atrocity of war and the toll it takes on those who are on the front line, via the graphic violence in the fire pits of Apokolips juxtaposed with the family lives it interrupts. Thanks to the beautiful art of Mitch Gerads, a conversation about redoing a condominium is entertaining and thrilling, even at the expense of many unfortunate parademons. Gerads grueling adherence to a mostly nine-panel uniformity is impressive, and after awhile you realize how strong his sequential storytelling is. His art pairs incredibly well with the story, a union enables the book to be, dare I say, miraculous.

Mister Miracle does something that is unusual for the comic book medium, it takes the idea of escapism entertainment, and inverts it. Instead of a man trying to escape the monotony of normal everyday life, we see a superhero and celebrity escape artist doing his best to escape his life. A cliched phrase that the tired and bored often use is, “I’m dying to escape this place.” Well, what Tom King literally gives us is an escape artist who attempts dying at the start of the story to escape his life of escapism. While we as the readers are trying to get into his world, Scott is actively trying his best to get out, to get a piece of our normal lives. It is on the epic battlefields that Mister Miracle truly looks bored, but when changing diapers, he seems…happy.

Scott Free is arguably every new dad trying to be better than his father as he battles falling victim to the same impossible choice his own father did. Will Scott give up his son to a life of torture on Apokolips or will he damn every fellow New God to continue the endless war that has been plaguing Scott and Barda their entire lives? This story culminates in Scott making the impossible choice. There are no easy answers in life, and Scott’s actions show that he understands this. Fortunately, he isn’t alone. The series features Big Barda too, Scott’s wife, and in all the ways that Scott fails, Barda picks up the slack. She is the strength to his weakness, the reason against his insanity, but most of all Barda is the decisive confidence to his indecisive insecurity. Any fan of Barda will love her strength in this book, watching Scott benefit from it as he battles his depression and makes his eventual escape.

From Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads.

The reason that King and Gerads’ Mister Miracle is such a touching tale is because it is the very embodiment of us, the reader. We’ve grown up to find lives not as the superheroes or celebrities we so desperately wanted to be when were children, but as parents and normal people we swore we’d never become. We endure the scars of perceived—or actual—childhood traumas and live in a world that we don’t exactly recognize every day. While we may not see the embodiment of our doubts and/or depression in quite the same way as Scott—Darkseid is.—we do contend with our own doubts, worries, and fears.

As a new father, myself, it has been clear to me throughout that Tom King and Mitch Gerads really infused this book with their own very personal insights into the heroic business of parenthood. Raising children is exciting and scary, but at the end of the day, far more important than interstellar wars on Apokolips, or any other planet for that matter. Though we may throw ourselves head first into those conflicts, we know the best things are at home with our wives, children, families. Those are the things that keep us going. We can’t forget the problems we face, even when we are on the couch playing with our young children. The dread of the real world is there. We can never really deny that Darkseid is, we merely use it as a footstool and focus that much more on our own little New Gods.

If you’re looking for a comic book that is truly grown up, then this collected work belongs on your shelf.  

Brandon Evans is a freelance writer and comic book lover from St. Louis, MO. He is currently working to find his way into the comic book industry. You can find him on Twitter as @writingbrandon

TRADE RATING: Hobo Mom is a quick read destined to linger

Hobo Mom is available now from Fantagraphics Books.

By Zack Quaintance — Hobo Mom, which was released last month by Fantagraphics, is an interesting graphic novel in terms of its construction. Billed as “a cross-Atlantic collaboration” by marketing material, the book was drawn by two cartoonists simultaneously: Charles Forsman (The End of the F***ing World, which was recently adapted by Netflix) and Max de Radigues (Bastards, which won a prestigious prize at the Angoulême International Festival of Comics), a pair of as literary comics makers as we have today. In fact, de Radigues was recently featured in the seminal literary journal, The Paris Review.

I’m not entirely clear on what the working relationship must have been like. Technology makes it so that collaborators—regardless of what bodies of water stand between them—can pretty seamlessly work together as if they’re in the same room. So, I assume the work was done digitally and it just went from there. What’s more interesting to me is that the book reads on its surface as if it were done by one artist. To my eye, at least. I read a lot of comics, and I couldn’t tell where Forsman’s work stopped and de Radigues’ began. My presumption is that the vast majority of readers will process this work that same way.

The story itself is as literary and character-driven, as understated and as focused on the smallness of a normal life with normal pains as the hybrids of the artists’ backgrounds would suggest. There is, of course, a plot conceit that makes this story worthy of narrative, that being the titular Hobo Mom, who has left her daughter and the father of her daughter for a transient life in Northern California’s Marin County, a gorgeous coastal area rich with temperate weather and redwoods just north of San Francisco (I live in nearby Sacramento and go hiking in Marin several times a year).

The plot involves the mother returning to the family, and the complicated and intense emotions such a return engenders. These emotions are all played out by the storytellers excellently, with subtle notes and quiet, well-illustrated visuals. The daughter does not know her mother, although we are given the impression that the bond between them is one easily rekindled, even if it’s never stated. The scenes between the two of them—the moments of tentative embrace, the strange appearance of a grown woman’s body in a home that has never had one—are among the most heartrending not only in this book but in all of comics so far this young year, up there with the likes of First Second’s excellent coming of age OGN, Bloom.

Hobo Mom wisely avoids the reductive character pratfall of casting any of those involved as a clear villain. The easiest impulse for most will likely be to resent the feckless mom for her abandonment. Narratively, I think our culture is trained to always always always respect those who stay. We’ve just read and watched and even lived years of stories that suggest most situations can be salvaged if we put in the work. To be certain, there is a bit of that sentiment in this graphic novel. The father is not cast as abusive or even emotionally distant. He’s an almost-aggressively normal man, who spends his days working as a locksmith, eating lunch in his truck as he drives from home to home, dabbling loosely in the lives of others as he finds ways for them to let others in or cast their own irreconcilable situations out.

The titular Hobo Mom prepares to see the pre-teen daughter who no longer remembers her.

A key scene involves a brief conversation between the father and a woman for whom he changes the locks. In the course of his work, they strike up conversation—it’s a small town this story takes place in, wherein the residents seem well-known to each other—and she tells the father about her own marital discord. It’s an organic conversation, one that leaves readers with the vague notion that there doesn’t have to be blame for these sorts of deteriations, that family and children and forging a life are all messy business, that things must pivot, wall must go up. That when someone leaves, the previous status quo is not one that can ever be returned to.

The central idea within this story has to do with perspective, with disparate notions of what constitutes happiness. The book is not interested in lecturing its readers about what they should want. Instead, it explores the tragic nature of humanity’s inherent disability to pinpoint what exactly is best for ourselves as well as those around us. There is never so much as a moment questioning intent. Even the father at his angriest seems to understand his partner’s condition, even if he’s not happy about it, and this to me is the greatest strength of Hobo Mom, the creative choice that makes it feel so authentic.  

It’s a poignant tale for a cultural time in which notions of family are evolving, certainly within our North American culture and I’d presume within Europe as well. The fact that these two cartoonists were able to collaborate on such a cogent story certainly speaks to that. In the end, Hobo Mom is a slow and aching story that ends on a hopeful, if uncertain note. I believe the role of the best fiction is to leave us with more questions than answers, and this book certainly does that. It’s a quick read, albeit one likely to linger in the minds of the audience for many months, especially with those of us who have ever considered whether total freedom—regardless of the cost—would be a happier state than our current daily responsibilities.   

Hobo Mom
Writers/Artists:
Charles Forsman & Max de Radigues
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Price: $14.99
Released: January 8, 2019

Past TRADE RATING installments have focused on Green Lantern: Earth One, Sara, and The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.

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

TRADE RATING: Sara by Garth Ennis and Steve Epting is great start for TKO Studios

Garth Ennis Sara, with art by Steve Epting, is available now via TKO Studios.

By Jarred Luján — TKO Studios recently rolled out their debut line-up, which was essentially headlined by Sara, a story about an all-female Soviet sniper unit fighting against the Nazi invasion of their country. I snatched Sara up pretty quickly because of my familiarity with both the writer and artist. Garth Ennis wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Punisher: Born, Steve Epting drew one of my favorite Captain America stories back in the day, collaborating on it with Ed Brubaker.

Before I dive deeper into the story here, I want to make something clear: the art in Sara is absolutely brilliant. While this book, of course, has its fair share of shootouts and battles and explosions, some of my favorite moments involve Epting’s artwork showing the small expression changes on characters’ faces. Ennis’ script did a fantastic job building up these characters, but it’s Epting’s art that really emphasizes character moments in a way that creates a more engaging reading experience. For those of us who have read comic illustrated by Epting in the past, this comes as little surprise.

Snowy Soviet plains probably do not sound like the best backdrop for a colorist to flex their talents, but Elizabeth Breitweiser does so here. Again, I’m talking mostly about small things, like the rosy cheeks in the midst of the brutal cold. Each moment a sniper bullet tears through a Nazi, the colors create a beautiful contrast of red mist and snow. So many of these pages are littered with black and white tones, yet they still convey much depth in various areas.

So, going into the story itself, it’s probably relevant to note that I have personally lived my entire life surrounded by soldiers. On my mother’s side, I am literally the only male that didn’t enlist (I doubt I’ll ever hear the end of that one, btw.) My family being the way it is meant I grew up with a mixture of war being mythologized and lessons on the darkest aspects of armed conflict from people who had firsthand experience. Growing up, I’d often sit around and watch war movies with my grandfather, or exchange war books with my step-grandfather, who both regularly shared personal anecdote from their times in Korea or Vietnam…sometimes these were funny stories or tales of heroes, and sometimes they were downright terrifying.

This is all a means of noting that war stories tend to draw me in more than they might the average person. Generally, there are two common ways that war stories are told. The first is your basic Good Versus Evil. It’ll usually feature the sacrifice of Good Heroes, who are certain their side is right and just, with a tinge of patriotism painted underneath. The second is about What War Takes Away. These stories feature good people doing evil deeds, corrupted by the nature of warfare. This often means a loss of decency, hope, morality, life, and—almost always—innocence.

That first type of story is typically the most common way that we see depictions of World War II. There are few human conflicts where it’s so clear where each side stands, what each side represents. Sometimes these stories gloss over the wrongdoings of the side they represent, in an effort to represent them well.

With Sara, Ennis has no interest in doing that. Sara, for whom the story is named, is an extremely conflicted character. She kills Nazis, sure, even efficiently, but Sara time and time again reflects on the cruelty of her own nation, the one she’s defending. This theme lends to some of the best character moments in the book, people clinging to the ideal outcomes of this war, and a jaded Sara trying to figure out where she stands in the first place.

This second type of grey morality story is how the greatest war stories are told. Ennis, though, has a reputation for flipping war stories, for creating a third option all his own. That ability is what made his work on Punisher: Born so brilliant: Ennis concocted a story of Frank Castle seemingly losing something, but it isn’t until the final pages that readers learn he has instead brought something back with him. It isn’t loss, it’s converting.

Ennis does more subversion of expectations in Sara. Sara’s comrades are the vehicle for this, rather than the dark captioning system that he used to accomplish it within the narrative of Punisher: Born. The parts of the story set in the past here also help us understand what’s happened to Sara to make her feel so ambivalent about the nation she finds herself serving. We discover that it wasn’t the loss of any one thing for Sara, but rather a gaining of truth. A truth that Sara’s devoted friends are not prepared for.

Sara is a slow burn of a book. The first couple chapters really focus on building the situation around Sara and her team, but ultimately that slow burn becomes an explosive flourish. The ending of this story fires on all cylinders, with Ennis teaching a master class on pacing. Sara, in the end, is a comic that incorporates many aspects of the real war stories my family has shared with me throughout my lifetime. Stories about that include patriotism, heroes, and glory, as well as terror, uncertainty, and doubt. Sara is a rarity in that it blends all of those things organically into a single powerful tale.

Overall, TKO has picked a worthy story from a seasoned creative team to represent the publisher well at its launch.

Sara #1
Writer:
Garth Ennis
Artist: Steve Epting
Colorist: Elizabeth Breitweiser
Letterer: Rob Steen
Publisher: TKO Studios
Price: Digital $13.99, Paperback $17.99, Individual Issues in Collector’s Box $24.99
Get It: Via TKO Studios

Check out more of our thoughts about trade paperback and original graphic novel on our reviews page.

Jarred A. Luján makes comics, studies existential philosophy, and listens to hip-hop too loudly. For bad jokes and dog pictures, you can follow him on Twitter.


TRADE RATING: Green Lantern Earth One is a high point for DC’s graphic novel series

Green Lantern: Earth One Vol. 1  was released on 3/4/2018. We are anxiously awaiting a sequel.

Green Lantern: Earth One Vol. 1 was released on 3/4/2018. We are anxiously awaiting a sequel.

By Hussein Wasiti — DC’s line of Earth One original graphic novels is part of what sets the publisher apart for me. The continual—if a bit sporadic—publication of Earth One is a great way for DC to both appeal to new fans while telling stories long-time readers don’t find in regular monthly comics. Do you want to read a 21st century take on Wonder Woman’s bondage-based origins? DC has a comic for you. Are you a fan of hard sci-fi? Well then, I encourage you to read Green Lantern: Earth One from the incredibly underrated team of writer Corinna Bechko, artist Gabriel Hardman, colorist Jordan Boyd (whose amazing work on Deadly Class put him on my radar), and letterer extraordinaire Simon Bowland.

Many stories about the Green Lantern Corps tend be a bit like a space opera, powered by sci-fi hi-jinx and fun. What Bechko and Hardman have achieved here, however, is something just a bit more serious. In this story, the creative team delivers a feeling of desolation, of helplessness, and of the eventual hope that arises from persevering against those feelings. In this world, the Green Lantern Corps is long passed its prime, which gives the narrative an effective sense of tragedy. The theme of helplessness persists in the functioning (or lack thereof) of the Green Lantern rings. Hal Jordan and his new friend Kilowog rely on their rings to translate their words, but when their rings run out of power, they can’t understand each other and no longer have anyone to confide in. This is just one beautifully-rendered and well-paced moment by the artistic team of Hardman and Boyd, who really do wonders illustrating these characters.

When the story begins, Hal feels as isolated as ever from his home planet, which is of course Earth. He’s been working as a contract miner in space for eight years. He feels disillusioned, and he is, by all appearances, a very different and more humble man than the often-cocky character DC fans know. Instead of yearning to fly in the sky and be with the stars, this version of Hal has been above the sky for years doing mundane work. The same characteristics and bravado that define him are still present.

His state of mind and the reasons they’ve been obscured, however, are not directly explained until near the end of the book, so I won’t delve into them here either. Basically, Hal wants more from life, and he eventually gets it when he discovers a buried spaceship that houses a dead alien with a green ring on his finger. What makes this plot work for me is that the conceit of this story isn’t too far removed from what actually happens in DC continuity. The dynamic of the Guardians of the Universe and the Manhunters is still present, but the Earth One story offers a little twist to the formula that makes it feel fresh and engaging.

This is a much darker sci-fi look at the character, one that this book perfectly achieves thanks to the artwork from Hardman and Boyd, who as far as I know haven’t worked together before this. Hardman’s sense of pacing feels unique in comics, which is likely because he’s worked as a storyboard artist in some major Hollywood films, most notably Interstellar and Logan, the former of which comes to mind while reading this book. Hardman’s action scenes are intense and quick, and I found myself turning through them rapidly. In fact, overall this is a quick read, and Hardman deserves credit for crafting such a well-laid out and urgent story. The grittiness that Hardman’s visuals give the plot feels appropriate, accentuating the aforementioned themes of isolation that are prevalent in essentially every aspect of this comic. Hal looks like a beaten-down and lonely man throughout most of it, and even wider panels depicting new environments and cities tend to feel drab or cold or both. This is a universe where the Green Lantern Corps was destroyed by Manhunters, and that reality fuels Hal’s motivations without him even realizing. Forgive me for being cheesy here, but this story is essentially about Hal bringing light back to a dark universe and, more importantly, to a dark version of himself.

This story stars a grittier, humbler version of Hal Jordan.

While I admired the pacing and the plotting of this book, if I have one complaint it’s that the ending left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. The third act of this story moves like a dream, with Boyd’s colors helping the book turn into an awesome action set-piece. Instead of concluding the story in a succinct manner, however, I got the impression that Bechko and Hardman were too concerned with setting up a sequel rather than concluding this individual volume. I have to admit, given the universe the team created, the final page of the story has me excited for the potential of more books set in this world...but I still felt disappointed when I put this book down. That said, It’s not a deal breaker and doesn’t take away from the majesty and preciseness of what the creators have accomplished with this amazing story. I still highly recommend it.

Overall, Green Lantern: Earth One is by far the best installment in this line of original graphic novels. Its vision of the DC Universe feels unique and singular, and it shows what’s possible when a publisher gives these stories to creators of such a high caliber. This work delivers the epic scope and sci-fi action that the Green Lantern Corps is known for, while at the same time injecting a different personality and edge that Hardman and Bechko have mastered in their independent work. I highly recommend this to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Let’s get DC to give us a sequel!  

Green Lantern: Earth One Vol. 1 HC
Writers:
Corinna Bechko & Gabriel Hardman
Artist: Gabriel Hardman
Colorist: Jordan Boyd
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $24.99 US / $33.99 CAN
Released: March 4, 2018

Hussein Wasiti is a history undergraduate with an intense passion for comics. You can find his weekly writings over at comicsthegathering.com, and periodically on weirdsciencedccomics.com. He is on Twitter as bullthesis, and lives in Toronto with his hordes of comics.