Last Month’s Comics: ‘Uncanny X-Men’ Ends (Until the Next Issue), ‘Spaceman’ Lifts Off

Welcome to Last Month’s Comics, in which I discuss, uh, last month’s comics. I get my comics in bi-monthly shipments from Discount Comic Book Service, and as such, I can be a little behind. So here we are.

This column is later than usual, as I was a little preoccupied earlier this month, but for all those still madly wondering about what October 2011’s comics had to offer, here we go…

BEST #1

Spaceman #1
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Art: Eduardo Risso
Publisher: Vertigo

I’ve read only a fraction of Azzarello and Risso’s acclaimed 100 Bullets, which ran for ten years from 1999 to 2009, but one needs no familiarity with their past work to be immediately sucked in by the opening chapter of Spaceman, their new nine-issue mini-series from Vertigo. It takes place in a weird, sad future, just a few monsters and flying cars away from the one in Joss Whedon’s Fray. Our protagonist is Orson, a monkey-ish man genetically engineered to travel to Mars, a trip the human race never got to make. Orson and his low-class friends speak in bizarre, disjointed slang; “okee” is how they say okay, and they actually say “LOL LOL LOL” instead of laughing. In this first issue, Orson has ominous spaceman dreams and becomes involved in the kidnapping of the adopted child of reality TV stars. Eduardo Risso’s art is terrific, Brian Azzarello’s storytelling immediately compelling. Choice line, as Orson’s alarm chirps “New day, new day, new day” while he opens the door on a bleak, cloudless future: “Why, you lyin machine…it’s the same fuck old day it always is.” (Plus: $1!)

MOST WELL-TIMED SNOWBALL

Uncanny X-Men #544
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Art: Greg Land (pencils), Jay Leisten (inks), Justin Ponsor (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

Of late, big things have been afoot for Marvel’s once-merry mutants, with Schism splitting the team into two factions: one in San Francisco whose members don’t mind that Cyclops trains children to be brutal soldiers, and one with Wolverine in New York whose members do mind. I missed the Schism mini itself, but the Regenesis one-shot showed the team breaking apart (with a really weird tribal framing device), and the new ongoing Wolverine and the X-Men is a fun look at what happens when Logan tries to run a school. The most important development, though, may be the fact that the original, 48-year run of Uncanny X-Men is coming to a close. The renumbering is merely symbolic; as of this writing, Uncanny has already returned as the Cyclops half of the new pair of flagship X-books. As the denouement of a decades-long story, this issue is merely decent. The Mister Sinister stuff might be set-up for a future storyline, but it still feels like filler, and the rest is mostly Scott being an asshole, something he excels at. However, there are a few grace notes: the opening page is the opening page of the first-ever X-Men, with Jack Kirby’s original art but different dialogue; there is a stellar two-page spread featuring most of the major developments over the course of the series; and the most well-timed snowball in comics history. Scott spends the whole issue reminiscing about what the X-Men used to be and brooding about their future, then exchanges some curt words with Hank, before turning to leave. “Hey, Scott!” calls a departing Bobby. He turns around, and a snowball hits him in the face. Cyclops is unamused. Bobby, smiling: “You’re not that different.”

BEST ANTHOLOGY

The Unexpected
Writers: Dave Gibbons; G. Willow Wilson; Alex Grecian; Josh Dysart; Jeffrey Rotter; Matt Johnson; Joshua Hale Falkov; Brian Wood; Selwyn Hinds
Art: Dave Gibbons; Robbi Rodriguez; Jill Thompson; Farel Dalrymple; Lelio Bonaccorso; David Lapham; Rahsan Ekedal; Emily Carroll; Denys Cowan
Publisher: Vertigo

The $8 pricetag is hefty, but for twice the cost of some mediocre regular-sized comics, you get 70-some pages of stories that are macabre, thoughtful, and provocative. The nine stories in those pages are unusually consistent; as with any anthology, some are weaker than others, but The Unexpected doesn’t contain a real clunker. Even the closing story, designed to hawk the forthcoming Voodoo Child, works as an interesting short on its own. Legends like Dave Gibbons and Jill Thompson chip in with stories about an unfaithful escape artist and an uncommonly intelligent zombie, respectively, and G. Willow Wilson, whose Mystic I’ve been raving about, writes an intriguing story which imagines a world in which dogs rise up and confront the humans who mistreat them. My two favorite stories, though, are by talents largely unknown to me. One is “The Land,” about a Mexican rancher in 1950s Texas who knows far more about the nature of a local child’s death than the authorities could hope to. Both Josh Dysart’s writing and Farel Dalrymple’s art are spare and evocative, the result a haunting story that also acts as a reflection of the current racial troubles in America. My other favorite is “Americana,” written by Brian Wood with art by Emily Carroll. It also comments on where our country is right now, imagining a dark future from 2012 to 2100. The storytelling is so economical it’s genius, and the ending feels genuinely profound. Unexpected, indeed.

BOOK WHOSE ART IS THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO ENJOYING IT

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #2
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Art: Alberto Ponticelli (pencils/inks), Jose Villarrubia (colors)
Publisher: DC

In theory, I should enjoy this book. Frankenstein heads up a squad of monsters including a mummy, a werewolf, and a Creature from the Black Lagoon type. Father Time is a little girl. Weird, fantastical set pieces abound. Jeff Lemire, currently writing the hell out of Animal Man, is the mastermind behind it all. And yet…Alberto Ponticelli’s art is…well, it’s not very good. It’s not awful, or even bad, but I would say it’s less than “just okay.” Ponticelli is capable of rallying for a big moment, as the splash of Frankenstein jumping from a helicopter attests. Unfortunately, his art can be scratchy and ill-defined elsewhere, the flashback to Agent Mazursky’s transformation into a monster a particularly good (or bad) example. Lemire’s writing, while not on the level of his Animal Man, is funny and exciting. Frankenstein is appealingly gruff in a Hellboy kind of way, and his standoffish interplay with the rest of the team is entertaining. If only J.G. Jones, who has been doing very good covers for the series, were drawing it. For a better example of this kind of thing, check out Marvel’s new Legion of Monsters mini.

COMIC THAT MOST SNUCK UP ON ME

The Punisher #4
Writer: Greg Rucka
Art: Marco Checchetto (pencils/inks), Matt Hollingsworth (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

The Punisher, much like Venom, is one of those characters who seem totally badass when you’re a kid, but kind of boring and one-note once you grow up. Venom has recently undergone some radical changes, first when Eddie Brock became Anti-Venom, then when Flash Thompson started using the symbiote on black ops missions for the U.S. government. The Punisher, too, has undergone some changes, though more in terms of tone than concept. Frank Castle is still a stoic killer out to avenge the slaughter of his family by taking out as many criminals as possible. What’s different here is Greg Rucka’s approach. So far, the Punisher has been more of a mysterious force of nature surrounding the story than a central presence. Rucka, whose past work on titles like Gotham Central and Queen & Country shows he clearly knows his way around complex crime comics, focuses on Detectives Ozzy Clemons and Walter Bolt’s investigation into a slaying at a wedding reception whose only survivor was the bride, a Marine sergeant. It’s just that the Punisher has a habit of killing their leads, exacerbated by the fact that Bolt is actually leaking info to Mr. Castle. Daily Bugle reporter Norah Winters is trying to write a story about the Punisher when she finds him bloody and beaten in an alley. Over four issues, the Punisher has said maybe a dozen words (most of them here). Instead of the kind of silly “grim ‘n’ gritty” story the Punisher used to star in back in the 80s and 90s, what we have here is a damn good detective story in which Frank Castle actually emerges as a compelling character for the first time in years.

MOST UNEXPECTEDLY TOUCHING ENDING TO A MEDIOCRE EVENT

The Amazing Spider-Man #672
Writer: Dan Slott
Art: Humberto Ramos (pencils), Victor Olazaba and Karl Kesel (inks), Edgar Delgado (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

In the first “Last Month’s Comics” column back in September, I called the “Spider-Island” event “ridiculous” and “severely underwhelming.” Nothing  much happened to change my mind, though there were some enjoyable mini-series and one-shots on the periphery. All six issues of Amazing that comprised the main storyline were busy and cluttered, confusing tons of frenzied action and talky exposition with good storytelling. There were clones and queens and heroes galore, but little that actually seemed to mean anything to the characters. The truth is that, like those before it, this issue isn’t much good. However, at the end, there is a moment which so perfectly embodies who Peter is and why he does what he does that it’s kinda beautiful. With all the heroes gathered to battle the Spider-Queen in Union Square, Mary Jane makes Peter realize that he won’t be of any use in this fight because everyone has his powers now. Instead, he needs to use that big brain of his. So he puts on Doc Ock’s old control helmet, sends out millions of Octobots to drink up the cure, and starts delivering it to the infected. The unrestrained glee on his face as he shouts, “I’m going to save everybody!” couldn’t help but put a smile on my face. MJ whispers that she loves him and the issue ends with them being all cuddly atop the Empire State Building. Can we get these two back together already?

WORST COMIC

Avengers 1959 #1
Writer: Howard Chaykin
Art: Howard Chaykin (pencils/inks), Jesus Aburtov (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

The premise of this five-issue mini-series is interesting: In 1959, Nick Fury puts together the first Avengers team, and they go on international espionage missions. The team consists of some surprising individuals, including Sabretooth, Kraven the Hunter, and Namora. Unfortunately, this extremely cool idea is wasted on a clichéd script and terrible artwork. Howard Chaykin is a legend in some circles, but he has not grown better with age. His faces look big and squishy, and his hands are distractingly awful. Seriously, just on the first page alone, there are like five examples of awkward-looking hands that are splayed out uncomfortably in a manner that a double-jointed person would pull off if they were trying to freak someone out. (And I should know, I’m double-jointed.) Jesus Aburtov’s dull, glossy colors don’t help matters. There’s really not much else to say about such a boring, poorly-executed book. Except I want to know what Howard Chaykin’s hands look like.

BEST COMIC

Ultimate Spider-Man #3
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Sarah Pichelli (pencils/inks), Justin Ponsor (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

Oh, Bendis. You make this look so easy. The man is writing what feels like half the books in the regular Marvel universe, most of them good-to-great, and then on top of that he’s writing this effortlessly brilliant reinvention of Ultimate Spider-Man. Three issues in and there are still no tights in sight, just plenty of adolescent insecurity and ambivalence. Miles Morales may not be sure that he wants these new superpowers of his, but he saves his first civilians when he puts his life on the line by jumping into a burning building. The rest of the issue is largely spent talking things through with Miles’ best friend Ganke, who’s becoming more and more of an invaluable creation on Bendis’ part. If Miles isn’t excited about his newfound abilities, Ganke sure as hell is, and his proclamation that he “sculpt[s] with Legos” while wearing a Howard the Duck shirt guarantees you’ll love the kid. The issue ends on a sad note that shows where in the story we are and hints at what might spur Miles into full-fledged superheroism. In short: if you’re not reading this series, you have severe problems.

OTHER COMICS YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT

I’m going to try a new approach to this section, since there are so many other noteworthy comics I’d like to recommend. It’ll be more like a comics roll call, but still in alphabetical order so as not to be all biased ‘n stuff.

Another super-short mini comes to a close with Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest #2 (Dark Horse), filled with more supernatural spookiness;  Angel & Faith #3 (Dark Horse) continues to be the stronger of the two Buffyverse series on the shelves right now; I thankfully read Animal Man #2 (DC) on my new Kindle Fire the other day, just in time to tell you how fucking great it is, like best-of-the-New-52 great; The Avengers #18 (Marvel) continues to show why Bendis is the funniest, most naturalistic superhero writer on the block; Batwoman #2 (DC), with dazzling artwork by J.H. Williams III and co-written by Williams and W. Haden Blackman, makes a compelling case for itself as the best of the new Batbooks; you likely won’t read a more moving comic having to do with the Holocaust this year than Captain America & Bucky #623 (Marvel); Casanova: Avaritia #2 (Icon) is more off-the-wall insanity from Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá; Daredevil #5 (Marvel) continues the highly successful return to DD’s swashbuckling roots; FF #s 10-11 (Marvel) are dense, complicated stories about war in alternate dimensions that are just plain fun to read; Invincible Iron Man #509 (Marvel) is the conclusion to that series’ “Fear Itself” tie-in; after Mystic #3 (Crossgen), I can’t believe there’s only one issue left; Secret Avengers #18 (Marvel) finds Shang-Chi kicking some serious ass alongside Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter; Severed #3 (Image) is some seriously creepy, engrossing stuff; Spider-Island: Cloak & Dagger #3 (Marvel), featuring beautiful art by Emma Rios, is easily the best thing to come out of that whole event and hey, give those two their own ongoing, for Pete’s sake; Swamp Thing #2 (DC) continues to appeal with its plant-based intrigue (I don’t know what that means, but this book is really good); and The Walking Dead #s 89-90 (Image) are, what else is knew, brilliantly dark and depressing.

Join me next month to talk about this month’s comics!

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