Top Comics to Buy for April 24, 2019: The Replacer, Criminal #4, and more

By Zack Quaintance — One of the things I’ve pushed against since creating this site is recency bias. All of us—fans and critics—have a shared tendency to praise and promote new #1 comics above mid-run installments or even finales. While there is a certain and acute level of brilliance required to create a strong debut, I think we as an industry tend to lose site of just how impressive and also difficult it is to sustain an interesting graphic sequential story for five, 10, or—as is the case with one of our...     

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REVIEW: Criminal #3, a comic for people really into comics

Criminal #3 is out 3/20/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — This new run of Criminal is, without question, a comics fan’s comic. The book’s writer, Ed Brubaker, was recently on John Siuntres Word Balloon podcast discussing how part of his goal with it is to create a series that begs to be read monthly. Through three issues, Brubaker and long-time collaborator artist Sean Phillips have certainly done that. Criminal #1 was a tour de force in graphic serial storytelling, with an extended length that enabled the team to tell a rewarding and complete story, while at the same time seeding ideas for subsequent issues to follow up.

Criminal #2 subsequently saw an abrupt shift to a different time and a different set of characters than the first issue (though the protagonist should be well familiar to readers of previous volumes of this anthology comic). Criminal #3 is now the second part of an arc started in the preceding issue. This structure for the trio of opening issues firmly bucks the recent trend throughout comics of writing distinct four-five-six-issue arcs that are perfectly suited to be compiled in a trade paperback. Bucking that trend does exactly what Brubaker discussed on that podcast: it gives comics buyers a pressing reason to pick up the book each month. I know I have been.

The second reason that Criminal #3 firmly entrenches this book as a comics fan’s comic is that it occupies the same thematic ground as Criminal #2. In this two-part arc, a surly and deeply unpleasant veteran/semi-legendary comicbook artist is bent on recovering some artwork he tells his apprentice has wrongly been taken from him. There are twists, to be sure, and I won’t go into them here, but I will say that there are a plentiful number of nods to industry insiders, long-time fans, and comicbook historians. It all adds up to an immersive and quisi meta reading experience.

This issue is also a bold one. Brubaker and Phillips have an all-time great writer-artist alchemy, and they’ve had it for years. They don’t rock that boat here by trying anything structurally experimental or thematically edgy. What they do, however, is take a read of the current comics landscape and come back with somewhat of a defiant statement within the context of an expertly-told and very organic story. What I mean is that like all of us who way way waaaay into the world of comics, they’ve been hearing the gloom and doom of mercurial sales numbers and voices predicting the end of everything from paper comics to the direct market to superhero stories that span eight continuous decades.

They’ve clearly heard it all, and rather than writing an opinion column or going on a podcast—things we’ve seen and heard veteran creators, retailers and industry watchers do ad nauseum—they have an actual story stand as a refutation. Hell, at one point the curmudgeonly artist who’s seen it all even comes out and says Comics have been dying since 1954, kid...don’t let that stop you...  

Hearing that reassurance related to the medium I love in the context of a story that shows what it’s capable of had a different and much more poignant impact on me. It seemed to be encouraging, not only for me as a review/aspiring creator, but for the continuing existence of stories of any type in the face of a changing economic reality. It seemed to say that the security in exchange for stories has never been a given, has never been an easy thing to achieve, and yet art has been made anway. If you want to do this, do it. The rest will figure itself out, for better or worse.

Overall: Criminal #3, like the rest of Brubaker and Phillips’ latest series, is a real comics fan’s comic, filled with insider touches and meta commentary, all encased within the duo’s all-time great creative chemistry. This book is a must-read, every damn month. 9.6/10

Criminal #3
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

Get a refresher on the other volumes of Criminal!

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 March 20, 2019 - Lazarus, Criminal, Wild Storm, and more

By Zack Quaintance — Someone pinch me, I must be dreaming...this week’s comics seem like they were precisely custom-tailored to my tastes. Indeed, many of the books that I gush about on the regular (which is admittedly a long wish) have new issues coming this week. That includes a long-awaited return of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus Risen, the steady drumbeat of horrifying excellence that is Immortal Hulk, and top-tier creator-owned books from Image, be it Monstress or Criminal.

There’s a lot of my old favorites among the Top Comics to Buy for March 20. There are also some notable new books arriving too. I’m thinking specifically here of Dark Red #1 from AfterShock Comics (a rapidly rising indie publisher) and Invisible Kingdom #1 from Dark Horse. The latter is a trippy visual tour de force laced with complex ideas about everything from commerce to religion (see our Invisible Kingdom #1 review) while the former follows a vampire who works at a rural gas station in Trump’s red state America (see our Dark Red #1 review too). It’s all good stuff.

So, without further adieu, on to this week’s comics!

Top Comics to Buy for March 20, 2019

*PICK OF THE WEEK*
Lazarus Risen #1
(read our review!)
Writer:
Greg Rucka
Artist: Michael Lark w/Tyler Boss
Colorist: Santi Arcas
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $7.99
NEW STORY ARC! "FRACTURE I," Part One LAZARUS returns in an all-new prestige format! New series, new story arc, new size, and a new quarterly schedule!
Introducing a new ongoing LAZARUS series-at 64 pages, perfect bound, LAZARUS: RISEN continues the story of Forever and the Carlyle Family... featuring an oversized, 44-page story by Eisner winners GREG RUCKA and MICHAEL LARK, an all-new short story exploring the larger world of LAZARUS by Eisner-nominated writer LILAH STURGES, an all-new supplement to the Modern Age: World of Lazarus Roleplaying Game by Green Ronin, original design artifacts and art supplements, and more! Two years have passed since the Carlyle Family was betrayed in battle, and the Conclave War encroaches on every side. As a new era dawns, Johanna Carlyle goes on the attack to ensure the survival of her Family, relying on the loyalty and support of the Carlyle Lazarus-her sister, Forever-remaining at her side. And while their united front may be enough to turn the tide, the cracks are beginning to show…
Why It’s Cool: Lazarus is one of the best creator-owned comics of the modern era. It’s complex, suspenseful, immersive, and compulsively readable. Now, the book is transitioning to a prestige quarterly format, which means fewer issues per year but just as much content (hopefully). In this first issue back, the comic hasn’t lost a step at all. In fact, I’d argue that it’s actually better than it used to be in monthly installments. Rucka and Lark are veteran creators who make compressed comics that are rewarding to read both in installments and trade. As such, this book hits certain story beats within each issue. Having the extra pages of the quarterly format allows them to do much more, like a TV show expanding from 30 minutes to an hour. It’s really something, and this series gets my full recommendation. Simply put, if you love comics you really ought to be reading Lazarus.
Read our Lazarus Retrospective!

Criminal #3 (read our review!)
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
"THE LONGEST WEEKEND," Part Two-Jacob's weekend taking care of his old mentor takes a turn for the worse.  As always, CRIMINAL contains back page art and articles only found in the single issues.
Why It’s Cool: In this new volume of Criminal, you can practically feel writer Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips fighting to change the narrative that monthly comics are dead. They do so in a couple of ways in this issue. First of all, they wrap up an incredible two-part story that they started last month, making it so it fits into the larger arc of this comic while also standing on its own as a satisfying bit of graphic sequential storytelling. Second, they make it a meta story in the best way, one steeped in comics history and culture that literally reminds the reader that comics have been dying since 1954. In the hands of lesser creators, this could feel preachy, forced, or even self-indulgent. But a master team like Brubaker and Phillips pulls it off flawlessly.
Read about Criminal’s previous volumes!

Immortal Hulk #15
Writer:
Al Ewing
Artist: Joe Bennett
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: Cory Petit
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99
Dr. Leonard Samson is a gamma mutate and part-time superhero who recently came back from the dead. He's been wanting to discuss that with an old patient of his... But he's not here to see Bruce Banner. Take a seat on the couch, IMMORTAL HULK. It's going to be quite a session.
Why It’s Cool: Phew, that last issue of Immortal Hulk was a doozy. But, really, I could probably say that after every issue of Immortal Hulk. This is, simply put, Marvel’s best comic in years. The concept and creative team from the start have been sound, but you can say that about a lot of Marvel’s books. What really sets Immortal Hulk apart is that it hasn’t ceeded any quality in the service of deadlines or events or anything. It’s been as unmovable in that regard as the Hulk himself. At the same time, it’s pushed into increasingly new and horrifying plot territories, keeping the feeling of unpredictable storytelling tension that powered its earliest issues. One way the story has done that is withholding much of the Hulk’s ample supporting cast before bringing them in slowly one by one. This issue looks to be the one in which Doc Sampson enters the fray. So, hurray for that. One last note: I only read this book after dark and strongly suggest you do the same.

Monstress #21
Writer:
Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
It's a turning point in Maika's life when she comes face-to-face with a stranger from her deep past.
Why It’s Cool: Love! War! Family! It’s all here in the latest issue of what has fast-become the most grandiose arc of Monstress to date, which is really saying something when you think back to the opener. Monstress #21 really has an overload of the things that make a single installment of a long-running story pop: new revelations, new characters, the promise of action to come soon, a clear push toward the climax, and a set of artwork as varied as it is stunning. I’m constantly impressed with the work Sana Takeda has done with this book, yet I’ve rarely seen her hit such a versatile range of visuals as she does in this issue, be it the adorable renderings of Maika as a child to the intricate character and equipment designs we get in the modern day. Writer Marjorie Liu also writes some of the best and pithiest dialogue for her heroine yet, bantering as she does with a key figure in her life (no spoilers). From start to finish, just a stunning issue.

The Wild Storm #21
Writer:
Warren Ellis
Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt
Colorist: Steve Buccellato
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: DC Comics - WildStorm
Price: $3.99
The experimental subjects code-named Apollo and Midnighter have broken cover. Combat-optimized superhumans are now loose on the Earth.
Why It’s Cool: Last month’s The Wild Storm #20 was the best issue of this series to date. After 19 issues of slow burn, the creators finally unleashed Apollo and The Midnighter, giving nearly the entire issue to a prolonged action sequence followed by a bit of romance. Was it fan service? Perhaps a little, but it was earned and also executed in the best possible way. This issue brings the focus back to some of the other characters, but make no mistake—the march to the assembling of The Authority continues, and oh what a thing that will be when it happens. There’s only three issues left. Two years ago I’d have guaranteed that this was building into the launch of a new The Authority comic, but with DC scaling back publishing plans under its new corporate owners, I’m inclined to estimate these three issues will be the last we see of these characters for some time. But, hell if I’m not going to savor every page of it. With a writer like Warren Ellis collaborating with an artist like Jon Davis-Hunt, this comic is just too good.

Top New #1 Comics

  • Dark Red #1 (read our review!)

  • Dungeons and Dragons: A Darkened Wish #1

  • Invisible Kingdom #1 (read our review!)

  • Life and Death of Toyo Harada #1

  • Monstrous European Getaway #1

  • Rise #1

  • Spider-Man: City at War #1

  • Spider-Man: Life Story #1

Others Receiving Votes

  • Aquaman #46

  • Archie #703

  • Avengers #17

  • Batman #67

  • Bitter Root #5

  • Black Badge #8

  • Electric Warriors #5

  • Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #4

  • Guardians of the Galaxy #3

  • Justice League #20

  • Middlewest #5

  • Naomi #3

  • Stronghold #2

  • Thor #11

  • Uncanny X-Men #14

Check back to the site later this week for reviews of Lazarus Risen #1, Criminal #3, and more!

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.

Best Comics of February 2019: Thor #10, The Wild Storm #20, and more

By Zack Quaintance — Holy cow, the debate over the final selections for the Best Comics of February 2019 got pretty heated within the committee (of one), raging for what felt like days. Some of our usual superhero favorites—Action Comics/Superman, Immortal Hulk, etc.—have maybe hit places in their runs where we take them just a tiny bit for granted. By the same token though, some of our other favorite long-form superhero narratives are hitting some pretty resonant emotional crescendos (see The Wild Storm, see Thor). But more on that below.

Let me just use this second paragraph of an intro most people scroll right past to address an ongoing narrative that comics are bad now and the industry is dying: stop it. I could go into the business (which is something that myself and roughly 99.9 percent of readers as well as most creators know absolutely squat about), but that’s been done ad nauseam. So instead I’ll point out how little we as fans of stories know about the economics that make them feasible, and wonder (not for the first time) why we waste mental energy on something we don’t understand.

Why did I waste such a long paragraph on it? Who knows! Onto the comics...

Shout Outs

The level of melancholic beauty Die #3 achieves is absurd. It’s just a beautifully-told graphic sequential story that uses the comic’s fantasy setting to tell a tale about WWI that speaks on a deeper level to the creation of the genre by J.R.R. Tolkien. It juuuuust missed this month’s top 5.

I’ll say this about Teen Titans #27: I can’t believe this, but I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the current run on this book by Adam Glass and Bernard Chang. Both creators are wildly exceeding my expectations at the moment.

Also surprising was The Terrifics #13. I’d left this book for dead somewhere around The Terrifics #7. The artists were inconsistent, and the initiative it led—the New Age of DC Heroes—died out of the gate. Yet, the creators have quietly put together one of DC’s best comics, ricocheting around the multiverse and hitting big emotional beats through Plastic Man and his son,. Read this!  

One more superhero surprise, and we’ll continue! Uncanny X-Men #11 caught me off guard. I didn’t like the bloated (and frankly lazy) X-Men: Disassembled that re-launched Uncanny X-Men. This comic, however, was the opposite of that: compressed and consequential, it now feels like a new era for the X-Men has started. I’m (cautiously) in.

I still maintain, however, that the best X-Men comic on the market is Livewire #3. Free of the bonds of corporate comics, it can up the stakes for its title character the ways the Big 2 can’t, and the creative team on this book is doing so monthly in such brilliant ways. Read this!

Another book I love for its mix of commentary with a sense of anything can happen is Vault Comics’ Wasted Space. We fortunately got both Wasted Space #6 and Wasted Space #7 this month, and I’m happy to say this comic remains amazing.Staying on the Vault Comics train, These Savage Shores #3 really stood out to me this month, so much so that I almost considered adding a sixth slot to our top 5 (but then, is it really a top 5 still?). Gorgeous and literary, These Savage Shores is a must-read.

This next comic on our list is here because it’s become underrated, which is maybe an odd thing to say about something written by Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead. Oblivion Song #12, however, was a very good comic with an ending cliffhanger that seems likely to extend our story for years to come. I’m in on it.

Ice Cream Man #10 returned the best horror story in comics to its core concept a bit this month while pushing the background (foreground now?) narrative to new places. This is a must-read creator-owned book if ever there was one.

I really struggled with the last of our customary 10 shoutouts, so let me just note that this final spot could have gone to any of the following: Action Comics #1008, The Green Lantern #4, Guardians of the Galaxy #2, Hot Lunch Special #5, Naomi #2, the entire Batman/Flash crossover, Magic Order #6, or Tony Stark: Iron Man #8.

Best Comics of February 2019

5. Mars Attacks #5
Writer:
Kyle Starks
Artist: Chris Schweizer
Colorist: Liz Trice Schweizer
Publisher: Dynamite Comics

There’s just something about a perfectly-told five-issue miniseries that makes it in many ways the idea way to do a comicbook story. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that, I’d highly recommend checking out Kyle Starks and Chris Schweizer’s Mars Attacks. This could be the most emotionally-honest and overall satisfying contained comicbook story I’ve read in years.

It’s also wickedly funny, combining as it does a heartrending father-son survival story with the trademark mostly-irreverent humor that has made Starks such a fun creator to follow through past works such as Sex Castle or Rock Candy Mountain. I didn’t really know anything about the Mars Attacks franchise coming into this and mostly still don’t care, but this book is well worth reading.

4. Archie 1941 #5
Writers:
Brian Augustyn & Mark Waid
Artist: Peter Krause (read our interview!)
Colorist: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Letterer: Jack Morelli
Publisher: Archie Comics

As friend of the site the great Will Nevin pointed out on Twitter as I was praising the bejeezus out of this book, the world could use more period comics in general, please. If those comics are anywhere near as good as this one, I’m all for it. In recent years, Archie Comics has experimented quite a bit with its classic characters, doing so in alternate reality scenarios and genres such as horror.

In the context of that experimentation, Archie 1945 comes across as a prestige title, a more dramatic and emotionally-taut story with the same sensibilities and dynamics that have helped the Riverdale gang endure for years. Our committee (of one) has picked Archie 1945 for a spot on this month’s list as a merit award for the entire series as a whole. It’s incredibly deserving, and I sincerely recommend picking it all up now in trade. I’m planning to for my bookshelf.

3. Criminal #2
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics

Our committee (of one) doesn’t often like to put comics this close to the debut of a run in our list, but Criminal #2 is more of a fresh vignette in a long-running story than it is an entirely new comic. This is, of course, now Criminal Vol. 8, and as good as the debut issue of this one was, the follow-up was even better.

This was, simply put, an incredibly well-done comic for people who love to read comics. It’s essentially set at San Diego Comic Con, following as it does an older celebrated artist who has turned to less savory ways of making money (see the title, please) and his former protege who gets swept up into whatever it is the aforementioned artist is tangled up in now. It’s a tense and well-told story (it’s Brubaker and Phillips, would you expect any less), and it works well both as a stand-alone issue and as a continuation of events in Criminal #1. Highly recommended.  

2. The Wild Storm #20
Writer:
Warren Ellis
Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt
Colorist: Steve Buccelatto
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: DC Comics

The Wild Storm #20 is, in a word, @%$#-ing epic. Okay, that was two words, or, rather, one word and that weird set of characters people use to denote cussing (like you don’t know what I was trying to say). Anyway, our committee (of one) has loved The Wild Storm since it began, featuring as it does such a deliberate and smart narrative. This issue has a bit of that for the first two pages, and then it moves into all action.

What it also does is return one of the best couples in all of comics to our monthly pages: Midnighter and Apollo, appearing here in their most recent depictions. It’s incredibly satisfying, and it makes you realize just how great of a veteran writer Warren Ellis is and has been for a while (if you hadn’t already). He gives us big, fan-service moments within the context of a really smart long-form narrative. I think the biggest compliment I can pay this book is that issues like this one are what make me continue to love superhero comics.

1. Thor #10 (read our full review)
Writer:
Jason Aaron
Artist: Mike del Mundo
Colorists: Mike del Mundo & Marco D'Alfonso
Letterer: Joe Sabino
Publisher: Marvel

Speaking of long-form, there is no better (nor longer) story in superhero comics right now than Jason Aaron’s Thor, which has been literally happening for something wild like six years (probably longer). He’s done compact story arcs, big events, and largely contained stories. Thor #10 is maybe all of those things, or a little bit of each, anyway.

It definitely fits into the larger story arc right now, of everyone in the Thor world preparing for the upcoming War of the Realms, which is as big an event as Marvel has had in recent years (which is really saying something). Meanwhile, it’s also a largely self-contained story about a father (Odin) and a son (Thor), kept from being emotionally honest because of toxic masculinity...and the world is all the worse for it. I have a strong suspicion this comic will also end up on my Best Individual Issues of 2019 list. So stay tuned for that in 10 months, ahem.

Check out our monthly lists, plus all of our Best of 2018 coverage, here.

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

Best New Comics January 2019 - Naomi, Guardians, and Young Justice

By Zack Quaintance — Regular readers will know this is the column wherein we look at the best new comics from January 2019, specifically one-shots and new #1 issues. They may also notice that I’ve cheated this month, selecting six comics for my usual top 5. First of all, I set the rule so I’m kind of like, oh well. Second, I expanded that section this month so that it wouldn’t be pretty much all Big 2 superhero comics, and I don’t think that’s ever a bad thing.

The good problem that I had this month was that both Marvel and DC launched a pair of super high-quality comics that I couldn’t leave out of my top five, with Guardians of the Galaxy and Invaders coming from Marvel, and Naomi and Young Justice from the Distinguished Competition. So yes, it was a great start to the year for fans of superhero storytelling. In fact, I may write a full piece about this sometime soon, but I think we’re in one of those rare periods where both of those publishers are putting out generally stellar work. But that’s a topic for another time.

Today, let’s get on with our look at the best new comics of January 2019!

Quick Hits

As d. emerson eddy noted in his Comic of the Week feature, Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1 is accessible and entertaining even to readers who may not have seen the old show...a group that embarrassingly includes me. That said, I thought this book was fantastic.

Another TV-based book I thought was fantastic? Adventure Time: Marcy and Simon #1 by Olivia Olson and Slimm Fabert. I’m a huge Adventure Time fan, and thought this book—which is set after the TV show ends—more than did the source material justice.

Let’s keep the transitions rolling and note that another book that more than did its source material justice was the new Conan the Barbarian #1, from Marvel, which was also a Comic of the Week pick this month.    

A little less exciting (at least for me) was Marvel Comics Presents #1. I still like this format—prestige creators telling short, one-off stories about the Marvel Universe—but other than the fantastic Namor story, this first installment was pretty average.  

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1.jpg

There were a couple nominative #1 issues this month with the Uncanny X-Men and Justice League annuals. The former was a character-driven story that minimized the weirdness of Cyclops coming back, and the latter a grandiose space opera epic that clarified some points about what’s happening in Justice League and why.

Another great Big 2 #1 was Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, which got even better with its second issue. Full review of the debut here.

Another comic I wrote a full review of was Oliver #1 by Gary Whitta and Darick Robertson. It’s a post-apocalyptic story with only a loose connection to Oliver Twist. I recommend it.

And one more review comic, Wyrd #1! You can read my full thoughts via the link, but this is a book that has all the hallmarks of the start of a special run.

Finally, I liked Barbarella / Dejah Thoris #1 well enough, but I overall recommend paying attention because the series’ writer, Leah Williams, is on the rise and it’ll be interesting to see how earlier work like this compares to later stuff.

Top 5 Best New Comics January 2019

Criminal #1.jpg

Criminal #1
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Penciler: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
Read our full review of Criminal #1!

Ho man, what have we as contemporary comics fan done to deserve a team as talented as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (joined here with colors by his son Jacob Phillips)? Seriously, the comics these guys make are almost too good. I read Criminal #1, which was an over-sized issue, with such an intense focus that I don’t think I liked up once until I was entirely through out. It’s that immersive.

Contributing writer Bo Stewart really summed up why it works so well in his review, but I’ll just reiterate again in brief: these are two masters of the craft working in tandem with a level of alchemy that is perhaps unprecedented. Do yourself a favor and read this comic.

Guardians of the Galaxy #1.jpg

Guardians of the Galaxy #1
Writer:
Donny Cates
Artist: Geoff Shaw
Colorist: Marte Gracia
Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $4.99
Read our full review of Guardians of the Galaxy #1!

As regular readers of the site may be aware, Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw’s Thanos Wins was one of our top comics of 2018, and now it’s essentially being continued in Guardians of the Galaxy. Of all the writers at Marvel—even the long-tenured vets—Cates arguably writes the best new #1 issues, and this one is no exception. It establishes a killer premise, gleefully speeds through it in grandiose fashion, and leaves the reader fondly looking for the release date of the second issue.  

As with Criminal, we also ran a full review that elaborates in greater depth on this comic, so I will again keep it brief and just note that I’m not even all that big a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy, and yet the continuation of this series just became one of my most-highly anticipated comics of 2019. So, yeah.

Invaders #1.jpg

Invaders #1
Writer:
Chip Zdarsky
Artists: Carlos Magno with Butch Guice
Colorist: Alex Guimaraes
Letterer: VC’s Travis Lanham
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $4.99

I’ve always liked Invaders more as a concept—the team of Golden Age Marvel characters that fought for the allies in WWII—more than I have in modern execution. Their stories have always felt like nostalgic throwbacks, inherently dated. This new comic, however, essentially flies in the face of that, with a first issue that seems to promise an exploration of the old times that will take us to modern places that are new.

How, you may wonder, does it do that? Well, if you’re so curious you really ought to read the actual comic, which, believe me, is very good. Chip Zdarsky is Marvel’s most nuanced writer. He may not write the flashiest stories (ahem, Donny Cates) or the best long-form narratives (Jason Aaron), but he’s the most likely writer in the Marvel stable to surprise and to land big emotional moments. This issue, which ends with a cliffhanger rooted in the past, gives every indication Invaders will be well worth readers’ time.

Naomi #1
Writers:
Brian Michael Bendis & David F. Walker
Artist: Jamal Campbell
Letterer: Josh Reed
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99

We don’t play favorites in this section, but, truth be told, Naomi #1 just might be our favorite new comic of the month. It takes a new approach to DC Comics most iconic heroes in a few ways. It takes us to a new town we’ve never seen (a hip, semi-rural enclave in Oregon), it gives us a young girl we don’t know (yet), and it dives deep into her point of view, how she sees Superman and what as an adoptee herself she sees to relate to, as well as why.

There’s a mystery that seems destined to end with Naomi growing into a superhero, maybe even a Kryptonian or Superman analog herself, but moreover, there’s just a really solid human story here. Whereas Marvel has basically an entire universe of everymen and everwomen, that has never been DC’s strength. Naomi is looking to fix that, and I for one am hella excited to see where this comic is headed. Oh, and Jamal Campbell’s artwork is absolutely stunning.

Peter+Cannon+Thunderbolt+#1.jpg

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1
Writer:
Kieron Gillen
Artist: Casper Wijngaard
Colorist: Mary Safro
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Publisher: Dynamie
Price: $3.99
Read our full review of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1!

Wowzer, did this comic catch me by surprise! I—embarrassingly—had no familiarity with Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt as a property. I did not realize he was one of the original characters from Charleston Comics that the Watchmen characters were later based on, and I certainly didn’t know the rights had gone up for grabs and become property of Dynamite. That said, I love what Kieron Gillen and Casper Wijngaard seemed to be engaged in after this first issue.

You know the drill—more thoughts in our review—but this has a last page that all Watchmen fans will be interested to read. It could ultimately end up being a very nice counterpoint to Doomsday Clock.  

Young Justice #1.jpg

Young Justice #1
Writer:
Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Patrick Gleason
Colorist: Alejandro Sanchez
Letterer: DC Lettering
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99

The Brian Michael Bendis-curated Wonder Comics imprint has arrived, and it is...well, wonderful. Young Justice #1 was the inaugural issue for the new imprint, and if this is the tone these books are looking to strike, well done. It’s fast, funny, and bent on being very tongue-and-cheek with DC continuity. It’s exactly the sort of in-universe lighter imprint DC needs, what with the other parts of the line seeming to perpetually bend back toward dark and gritty.

The most interesting thing about this individual story though, is the way it plays with continuity. It seems to know that readers have questions about the current status quos of characters like Impulse, Connor Kent, and Cassie Sandsmark, which by extension plays to more questions about what from the New 52 counted and what is wiped away. This is the central mystery the comic is built around, and it’s a really intriguing one, to be sure.

Check out more of our many monthly lists here.

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

Comics Anatomy: Velvet's perfect page

By Harry Kassen — Hello Bookcase readers, I’m Harry Kassen and this is the inaugural Comics Anatomy, a bimonthly look at comics craft and technique. Each installment will center on a particular comic’s use of various elements of comics craft. Most articles will focus on a particular element of a book, but for this first article I thought I’d give a sense of the sorts of topics I’ll be dealing with by explaining the many different things at play in a page of one of my favorite comics: Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.

This is page five of Velvet #3, and it’s one of the best comics pages I’ve ever seen.

Before delving into specific things, let me say that all of the creators on this book are at the top of their games here. Brubaker does a great job crafting a well-paced, intricate spy thriller. Epting’s moody art and clear storytelling make sure that nothing is missed but also create a strong sense of atmosphere and setting. Elizabeth Breitweiser (though I disapprove quite strongly of her association with CG) does a characteristic great job of supporting the moodiness of Epting’s inks. Lastly, Chris Eliopoulos tops all of this off, tying together the various elements with slick, readable lettering. Many comics meet these criteria, though, so why am I writing about this one?

Looking at this page in particular, the real strengths of this book are apparent. This page is eminently readable with the reading order popping off the page. Much of this is due to Eliopoulos’ work in placing the balloons so that they draw your eye to the next image. Taken alone, however, the page still isn’t totally clear. When the lettering is looked at along with the art though, the reading order is unmistakable.

The lettering carries the reading order through the top tier of the page and into the second, but the reading order for the middle tier into and through the bottom tier is dictated by the art.

This makes sense. The storytelling in the top tier of the page leading into the middle tier is mostly done in dialogue. It’s just our two main characters, Velvet and Burke, talking with two thugs. There isn’t much character movement or action until the middle tier. Starting in this panel, though, the action takes over (more on this later) and the storytelling and communication of reading order is all done through the art. Epting shows characters, specifically Burke, moving and doing things with minimal dialogue.

More than just transitioning from dialogue-forward to action-forward storytelling, this panel does something very impressive that requires all elements of the page to work in concert: It gets you to read backwards.

Velvet's Perfect Page Image 5.jpg

What I mean by this is that western readers like me are trained to read from left to right. Even in visual media like comics, we tend to see narrative progress in left-right movement and find reading in reverse to be unnatural. That’s the beauty of this panel. Everything in it works together to pull your eye from right to left across the image.

There’s a lot to look at here, so I’m going to do this in the order you would see it when reading. The first thing you’d see is the transition from panel 3 into panel 4. It’s essential that the reader goes straight from panel 3 into this one at the right side in order to get the full effect, and this is ensured in a few ways. The first and most obvious is that the lettering in the third panel is at the bottom of the panel and the lettering in the fourth is at the top, right below the third.

This takes your eye straight from “Just get on the ship and--” to “No.” without giving you any time to lose track of or question what comes next. The eye just drops down and catches on the balloon. This is highlighted by the fact that the entire upper-right corner of the panel is black, emphasizing the small white oval of the speech balloon. The art and the lettering work in concert here to guide your eye to the exact place it needs to go.

The next part of what makes this panel special is the real magic bit: how it gets you to read it right to left. The most obvious thing is that the gun is a big pull and the bright flash is enough to get your eye, but if that were the case you would jump immediately to the left and not spend time traveling across the panel. The image makes you spend time with it and engage in the process of moving across the page, giving you the feeling that it’s happening now, not that it’s already happened.

Velvet's Perfect Page Image 5.jpg

The art team know that wouldn’t make for interesting reading and take advantage of this opportunity to show you things in process rather than completed actions.

There are a few techniques at play here, all of them coming from Epting and Breitweiser. The first piece is the motion line. This book aims for a pretty realistic visual feel so it minimizes motion lines, sound effects and other, similar devices, but in this panel there’s a motion line from Burke’s jacket on the right to the outstretched arm on the left.

The fact that these are so infrequent makes this one instantly something to pay attention to. It also stands out from the rest of the panel visually because it’s a different color from what’s behind it as it begins and then again as it finishes. Epting/Breitweiser (I don’t know how much of this part each person did, inks for this book are hard to find since it was done digitally) make sure that the motion line is light against the dark cloth of Burke’s shirt and then it shows up again as lighter than the red background. This provides something to latch onto and pulls the eye across the page slowly because it’s still a slightly unnatural process. You almost feel at this point like you’re watching the gun move left. This one element, however, is not enough to cement the reading order.

Another part of this is that the background has been dropped out for this panel. That can have the effect of speeding up the panel but in this case it’s more important to look at what has replaced the background.

As I’ve already mentioned, the top right corner of this panel is black, but the rest of the panel is a red gradient that gets lighter as it goes from right to left. Given that you start in the black region on the right, the natural progression is to follow the gradient left as it gets lighter.

The last notable technique used in this panel is the non-rectangular panel shape. The top border and the two sides stay at right angles like a traditional rectangular panel but the bottom border slopes down as it moves from right to left, making the panel expand in the direction of the action.

This does two things. First, it makes the eye move from the confined right side of the panel over to the wider left side. This reinforces the reading order, getting you to look where you’re supposed to look. The other thing it does is lead the reader into the third tier by pulling the eye down along the panel border. Without that downward slope, neither of those things is as clear.

*This screen cap has been altered in Photoshop to demonstrate what the panel might look like without the downward-sloping border to guide the eye.

This takes us to the third tier, which may be my favorite part of the page. The third tier is made up of one panel showing a man who was just shot on the left, Burke in the middle pointing the gun right, and a man being shot to the right of that.

Velvet's Perfect Page Image 12.jpg

Thinking about it like that, it’s actually a pretty boring moment to draw. If we think of the panel as a frozen moment in time, the moment Epting chose is one that happens after all of the action is already done. Both men have been shot already and there’s nothing else happening. Epting is too good to let the panel be boring though. He sets this panel up to create an engaging, almost cinematic feel and it has everything to do with the way Burke is drawn. Burke is shown in heavy shadow with a solid black line running from the bottom of the panel up to the top. Beyond creating atmosphere, this serves to separate the left half of the panel from the right, essentially making it into two panels, separating the moments. When reading this panel you get to the top left part, see it as a panel where Burke shoots the guy on the left, then you move right, passing Burke’s shadow and see a panel of Burke shooting the guy on the right. The deep shadow separates these two moments so that you can experience them one after the other and see the action as it’s happening rather than all at once. Without that shadow, it’s a bland panel, effective but uninteresting. With it, it’s one of the best panels I’ve ever seen.

*This screen cap has been altered in Photoshop to demonstrate what the panel might look like without the shadow.

And, while that wraps up my breakdown of this page, I’d like to say that this is by no means the only example of good craft in Velvet. I said it before and I’ll say it again: every member of the team turned out career defining (or redefining) work for this book, but if I tried to talk about all of it I’d be here all day. All I can tell you is to read the comic. Thanks for reading Comics Anatomy, and I hope you join me for more analysis of comics craft and technique in two months time.

Velvet
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Artist: Steve Epting
Colorist: Elizabeth Breitweiser
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Publisher: Image Comics

Harry Kassen is a college student and avid comic book reader. When he’s not doing schoolwork or reading comics, he’s probably sleeping. Catch his thoughts on comics, food, and other things on Twitter @leekassen.

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: 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

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

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

Essential Espionage: The Best Spy Comics

By Taylor Pechter — In comics about espionage and spying, the stories usually don’t focus on the political or personal ramifications of the craft, instead dealing in flashier things like action, intrigue, and sex. On rare occasions, however, those more realistic aspects do shine through, creating a grounded look at the world of espionage. The best spy comics find glory in the monotony of the work, using a stronger focus on the real people involved as well as how their escapades affect their lives.

While these books might be rare, they are out there, and today I’d like to look at some of the best spy comics of all time. Now let’s get into the books...

The Best Spy Comics

Queen & Country

Writer Greg Rucka,  a 25-plus years veteran of the industry, wrote Queen & Country from 2001 to 2007 for Oni Press. Queen & Country follows SIS agent Tara Chace, designate Minder Two. and the book is broken into sections that follow separate operations undertaken by the organization. For example, the first story Operation: Broken Ground has Tara in Kosovo on an assassination mission trying to take down a former Russian General turned mob enforcer. She gets the job done, but in response, the Russian mob puts a bounty on her head. However, more important than the operations is Tara herself, and it’s this focus on character that makes Queen & Country so special.

Tara is a headstrong and sarcastic (if a bit in-over-her-head) agent. After the assassination, she is put into therapy. It is here Rucka plays with the psychological aspects of the profession. In therapy, Tara is jittery and untrustworthy of the doctor. As she opens up, however, you really see how important her job is to her, even though it wreaks havoc on her personal life. Another aspect Rucka focuses on is the political ramifications of the craft, whether it’s dealing with the home office (MI5) after a rocket attack or capturing a politician selling secrets to the Russians. Politics take center stage in most of the stories.

This creates intrigue, and Tara and her team of Minders (special agents) have to be sanctioned by C, the head of the service, to go on missions. On these missions there is action, but action scenes are few and far between. What readers see is the real monotony of spy work: tailing, gathering information, and reporting it back to superiors. Within this monotony is where characters shine through their interactions. All of these aspects make Rucka’s creation what I consider to be the quintessential espionage comic.

Sleeper

What happens when you are an agent left in the cold, no one to help you, and you work for a madman trying to take over the world? This is the story of Holden Carver, the lead character of the WildStorm series Sleeper, which is one of the earliest collaborations between the superstar creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is a tale focused on morality. Holden Carver is an agent for International Operations, the most prominent intelligence agency in the WildStorm Universe. Carver’s mission is to infiltrate a corporation run by former Wildcat-gone-bad TAO (Tactically Augmented Organism). To complicate things, however, John Lynch, former director of IO and Carver’s handler, is stuck in a coma after an assassination attempt and having his file burned. With an expunged record and no help, Carver must find a way to make sure TAO and his men don’t discover his secret while also proving to the agency that he is actually on their side.

It’s through this dichotomy that Brubaker crafts a story of a man who has done despicable things for both sides searching for purpose. Will he be corrupted by sex and violence, or will his humanity shine through? It’s a stark contrast from TAO, who is devoid of morality. In his final confrontation with Holden, TAO exclaims, You want to know the main difference between you and me Holden? You’re like the rest of humanity, you have two people inside. One is the person we see. The other is the person you think you are. It’s a powerful idea and it brings Holden’s arc full circle. This, along with the raw and unrefined art of Sean Phillips, grounds the series in a dark and twisted, yet fantastic world. Sleeper is often overshadowed by Brubaker and Phillips’ later works, but it is one of the definitive superhero noir comics.

Checkmate

Another series penned by Rucka, Checkmate follows the exploits of the eponymous UN sanctioned organization in the wake of Infinite Crisis and the death of its former leader, Maxwell Lord. Checkmate in this story has been restructured via the Rule of Two, which states that for every powered member of the team, there must a non-powered member. Checkmate’s mission is monitoring metahuman activity and defending against metahuman threats.

Like Queen & Country before it, this book focuses heavily on political ramifications, especially when it comes to conflict between Sasha Bordeaux (the Black Queen), and Amanda Waller (the White Queen). Through this, Rucka explores themes of duty versus morality, the price of deception, and new beginnings. At the series’ start, Sasha is more carefree with her actions. During a raid on a Kobra outpost in the Gulf of Aden, she instructs Beatriz Da Costa, also known as Fire (Black King’s Knight) to set the compound ablaze, killing upwards of 50 cult members. Sasha’s own Knight, Jonah McCarthy, dies in the crossfire.

This disregard for human life contrasts with the views of Alan Scott, the White King at the time, who believes they should value human life over mission objectives. This, along with Sasha’s relationship with Mister Terrific (Alan’s Bishop) also gives Waller ammunition to drive her out of the agency. Speaking of Waller, this is her at her most deceptive, which is saying a lot. Throughout the first half of the series she conspires with her Bishop, King Faraday, to throw out the other Royals for violating Checkmate’s charter on the Rule of Two. Amanda’s deception is called out by Sasha and Terrific, and she is later dismissed. It’s all dramatic and well done.

Lastly, there is the hope for new beginnings. At the start of the series characters try to get out from under the shadow of Lord. At the halfway point, following Amana’s dismissal, they become more welcoming of outside help. At the end, after a raid on a Kobra stronghold, much like the beginning they realize the cult is engineering infants into weapons. As Batman confronts Sasha about what happened, Sasha monologues, How do you fight a bad religion? You give it a fresh start. You play the long game. But we can do that. We have time, Checkmate isn’t going anywhere.

Overall, Checkmate was one of DC’s first major modern espionage comics. Sasha Bordeaux was later reintroduced in current continuity by Rucka in his second critically-acclaimed run on Wonder Woman. Here’s to hoping we get a reunion sooner rather than later.

Velvet

Imagine your entire life was taken away by the people you trusted the most. This is the story of Velvet Templeton, secretary and former agent for ARC-7, a top-secret intelligence service. Written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Steve Epting, and colored by Elizabeth Breitwieser, Velvet crafts a story that deals with the burden of secrets, spy life versus regular life, and the bitterness of betrayal.

The story starts with the murder of an operative by the name of Jefferson Keller, designated X-14. This sets off a search for the answers Velvet craves, which ultimately ends in her going rogue to find them. With her on the run, the agency has to deal with her and the ongoing investigation of the murder of Keller, plus a possible mole. With this comes the burden of secrets, which is hidden beneath every layer as Velvet uncovers more. Each answer leads to more questions. Not only that, Velvet also has to accept that being a spy has forever changed her life—a life of sulking in the shadows and not trusting anyone, even the ones closest to her.

Last, she has to deal with her entire life being a lie and her closest allies in the agency setting that lie up. Whether it be the death of her husband, a supposed double agent, or the death of Keller, etc. Brubaker’s writing is sharp and at times darkly comical. Epting’s art is gorgeous in its dynamic brutality. Heavy shadows accentuate the lush colors of Breitweiser. Velvet is a brutal and realistic take on espionage that, like Sleeper, is often overlooked in Brubaker’s catalogue.

Grayson

Dick Grayson has been many things: acrobat, boy wonder, caped crusader, team leader, and now, secret agent. This exploration of identity is a key aspect of the 2014 series Grayson. Spinning out of the events of Forever Evil, Grayson is written by Tom King and Tim Seeley with art mainly by Mikel Janín with help from Stephen Mooney, plus colors by Jeromy Cox.

The story focuses on Dick after his supposed death at the hands of Lex Luthor. He is inserted as a double agent into spy organization Spyral as Agent 37. Under Batman’s orders, he is to uncover the organization’s secrets and ultimately dismantle it. Within Spyral, he is partnered with Helena Bettinelli, or Matron, who is the head of the boarding school that is Spyral’s cover. As Dick goes on missions, he discovers Spyral is stockpiling information on the secret identities of League. The heart of the series really shows through in issue 14, wherein Dick returns to Gotham. This story demonstrates how important Dick was to the Bat-family, in all of his interactions. Whether it is conversations with Alfred about Bruce, speeches to Barbara about the love they shared, or reminiscing with Damian about their Batman and Robin days, there’s a focus on the Dick’s core experiences, showing us how he became the character he is today.

Janín and Mooney’s artistic styles contrast, but they are brought together by the expert coloring of Jeromy Cox. Janín’s lines are cleaner, adding a Brosnan Bond-esque tone with high action, while Mooney has more lines and darker shadows. These art styles, along with clever writing, combine to make a fun, exciting, and introspective series that redefined Dick Grayson.

Ultimately, the spy genre is one of the most fertile in comics. Spy books are uniquely able to focus on many different aspects that readers don’t find in normal superhero comics. From the psychological aspects of Queen & Country, the moral ambiguity of Sleeper, the politics of Checkmate, the brutality of Velvet, to the journey of Grayson, these comics craft compelling stories with relatable characters. That is what makes them essential espionage material.

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

REVIEW: Brubaker and Phillips’ My HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES is a Psychedelic Bonnie & Clyde

By Taylor Pechter —  When it comes to crime comics, two names are basically synonymous with modern works in the genre: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Throughout the last decade of their fruitful collaboration, the duo has made some of the most acclaimed series in all of comics, from the down and dirty family drama of Criminal, to the Lovecraftian horror history lesson that is Fatale, to their most recent monthly series Kill or Be Killed, a nuanced dive into mental illness.

Brubaker and Phillips’  latest creation is the original graphic novel My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, wherein they create a story that involves romance, the meaning of life, and a thorough shattering of the status quo. This is the first time the pair has produced a complete work in the original graphic novel format, and so I think it’s helpful to break it down into individual qualities, starting with the writing and the plot.

Warning Spoilers: The story in My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies follows a woman named Ellie who is sent to a rehab facility by her uncle...or so she believes. In the early pages, readers get Ellie’s view of the world, as well as her thoughts on being a titular junkie. During a therapy session Ellie exclaims, Why do we automatically think getting clean is a great thing? What if drugs help you find the thing that makes you special?

Here in lies Ellie’s arc, during which she recalls past experiences with her mother, who was herself a junkie. Not only that, but Ellie’s story also touches thematically on some of the most famous singers—Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin—all of whom were junkies and eventually succumbed to their addictions. However, in Ellie’s mind they are the heroes of her story. Through them she learned that junkie carries a negative connotation, even though she believes it should really carry a positive one. Her logic goes: these famous musicians made memorable music while also high on something, be it heroin, cocaine, or speed. Essentially, Ellie sees being a junkie as breaking the status quo of normal life. Doctor Patti, however, obviously thinks the opposite. She thinks that her patient Ellie has convinced herself of this in order to feel special, making her just like any other person in the facility.

Eventually, readers are also introduced to Skip, another patient at the hospital. As time goes on, he grows closer to Ellie and they form a sort of partnership. It starts with sneaking out to take a puff at night and evolves into eventually planning escape. It is during this escape that Skip and Ellie grow closer. They move from house to house, forging a bond, and so romance blossoms. With romance, their dependence on drugs also grows. It is then Ellie monologues, I mean, what young lovers don’t secretly want this? To be bandits on some lost highway… Running until it all burns down?

It is not just through her dependence on drugs, but also her love of Skip, that the memories of her mother and the thrill of the chase bring Ellie’s life full circle. As the story draws to a close, Ellie is walking on a beach, much like we saw her at the beginning of the story. There, she reminisces about the events that have transpired. It is through her ending monologue that she exclaims that life is supposed to be like a clouded memory, and that the things you really remember are the things that are most important. It is in fact the love that others give you that makes life worth living.

In terms of the artwork, along with Brubaker’s detailed script comes, as always, Sean Phillips artwork. Phillips is a master of emotion, an artist who is able to capture the happiness, sadness, excitement, and boredom of each of the characters he renders into life. Not only that, Phillips use of body language also adds an extra layer of realism. This, however, has basically become standard within Brubaker/Phillips works. So much so, that we’re probably all taking how great these comics look for granted. Phillips work really has been that good for that long.

What is new with this most recent Brubaker/Phillips work is the colorist. Joining Phillips on coloring duties is his own son, Jacob. Jacob replaces Elizabeth Breitweiser, whose colors have often paired with Brubakers drawing of late. Jacob Phillips splotchy color palette of bright oranges, pinks, and blues really fits this particular story well, adding a psychedelic feel to the proceedings. The story also features many flashbacks throughout, detailing Ellie’s childhood, and Jacob Phillips lends them all a beautiful monochromatic style evocative of times gone by. Breitweiser is a great colorist, as is another past Phillips collaborator Val Staples, but Jacob Phillips work compliments his father’s in a way that has me hopeful they’ll continue to collaborate in the future.

Overall: With My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips craft a beautiful story of a woman trying to find her place in the world. This original graphic novel format adds extra weight to their story, too. With a detailed script and luscious artwork, this work is likely to rank up there with some of the duo’s best stories. It’s a solid offering from today’s masters of the crime comic, one to tide their fans over until the return of Criminal in January. 8.5/10

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies
Writer:
Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $16.99

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