Last Month’s Comics: ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ Swings In and DC’s New 52 Roll Out

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 feature started last month.

So, September 2011, what kind of havoc did you wreak? Let’s find out…

BEST RETURN TO FORM

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 9 #1
Writer: Joss Whedon
Art: Georges Jeanty (pencils), Dexter Vines (inks), Michelle Madsen (colors)
Publisher: Dark Horse

To say that I was pleased upon finishing the first issue of the new “season” of Buffy is an understatement. Season 8 started off very well, with Buffy leading an army of 500 Slayers and trying to unmask the mysterious foe Twilight. And to tell the truth, it was great for much of its run, with an occasional stumble (vampires being outed to the public wasn’t handled with much finesse). But the last story arc, with the reveal of Angel as Twilight, cosmic sex, and general batshit insanity, was so damaging that even someone who considers Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be the greatest piece of entertainment ever given us by man had come to the conclusion that it might be for the best if Ms. Summers was finally laid to rest. The final issue of Season 8, though, was a dramatic 180 from the pace and structure of the last few issues leading up to it, and the Season 9 premiere continues in that vein. With Giles gone and magic vanquished, Buffy is depressed and adrift, working as a waitress and getting blackout drunk. It’s all done with Whedon’s razor-sharp wit and keen sense of twenty-something angst. The final “shock twist” is so humdrum and everyday it’s hilarious. In many ways, the metaphorical “party” is over for our Scoobies; now what? I can’t wait to find out.

BEST OF DC’S NEW 52

Swamp Thing #1
Writer: Scott Snyder
Art: Yanick Paquette (pencils/inks), Nathan Fairbairn (colors)
Publisher: DC

By my count, I’ve read 19 of the 52 new #1’s that DC has rolled out as a reinvention of their entire line. Of those, I’ve liked 11. Which is the majority, and I can’t claim to have read everything I’ve heard good things about. But still, there are those eight okay-to-terrible books, including one I’ve decided to drop after just one issue (read on). As I’ve read these books, even some of the ones I’ve liked, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s just this slimy film over the whole initiative that makes me feel dirty. Everything is Hotter! Prettier! Thinner! (Seriously, we now have a buff Perry White and a thin Amanda Waller. Why?) Yet there are a few books that make me think the whole thing is going to work out. Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing is one of them; the best of them, in fact. I must admit to comics heresy: I have little to no familiarity with Swamp Thing’s history, including Alan Moore’s acclaimed run on the title. But I find it encouraging that in the course of one issue, Snyder has me fully captivated, even with a potentially jarring appearance by Superman in a book that has little to do with superheroes. Birds fall from the sky, the bats in the Batcave drop dead, and fish drown in the sea. As former botanist/Swamp Thing Dr. Alec Holland remarks, “It makes for spooky headlines, but it’s not uncommon.” No, uncommon are weird bone-monster things killing people and Dr. Holland coming face-to-face, quite literally, with a side of himself he thought he’d left behind. Fascinatingly strange and dark, both adjectives DC wears well.

BEST BATBOOK

Batman and Robin #1
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason (pencils), Mick Gray (inks), John Kalisz (colors)
Publisher: DC

The story is called “Born to Kill,” and it is very much about those who have found purpose in causing violence, as well as fathers and sons. For almost his entire life, Bruce Wayne has been seeking to avenge his parents’ murders by fighting crime on the streets of Gotham, which is at least partially a death wish. Now that he’s raising his own son, Damian, fighting alongside him as Robin, Bruce has decided to stop dwelling upon the night of his parents’ deaths and instead to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Damian has no such respect for his elders, constantly mocking his father and regarding his dead grandparents as mere artifacts of a life he knew nothing of. He is a ten-year-old boy who lives only to fight, something which disturbs Bruce. If Damian is Bruce Wayne’s biological son, then it’s fair to view the international Batmen as the symbolic sons of Batman. The Moscow Batman is captured by a helmeted villain who declares, “This new global circus act of his has to end.” Bruce Wayne’s son is at risk, both physically and psychologically, because of his father’s extracurricular activities; Batman’s sons now find their lives in danger because of the tortured, masked man whose actions they seek to replicate. Peter J. Tomasi’s script is emotional and exciting at the same time, and Patrick Gleason’s artwork finds the intensity and nuance in every beat. Easily the best of the new crop of Batbooks, and if this first issue’s any indication, it should be one of the best superhero books on the racks.

MOST FRUSTRATING BATBOOK

Batgirl #1
Writer: Gail Simone
Art: Ardian Syaf (pencils), Vicente Cifuentes (inks), Ulises Arreola (colors)
Publisher: DC

Gail Simone is a great writer, one who did wonderful things with Oracle, the master hacker identity that Barbara Gordon assumed after being paralyzed by the Joker. After Batman, Oracle was probably the most intriguing hero in DC’s roster, every bit Bruce’s intellectual equal. In DC’s new status quo, Barbara was still shot by the Joker and was still paralyzed, but only temporarily. Now she’s fully healed and has gone back to being Batgirl. She’s still a likable character, but there’s no denying that it feels like she’s been defanged, downgraded to a less interesting persona. Of course, the loss of Oracle is symbolic as well: she was the only major disabled superhero, maybe even the only disabled superhero, period. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Barbara swinging around Gotham kicking ass, and if Oracle had never existed, maybe we wouldn’t be quibbling. But Oracle did, and we are. It doesn’t help that in the issue’s biggest dramatic moment, a caption reads, “He pointed that gun at my spine, and I froze!” The rest of the issue isn’t that cringe-worthy, and is in fact quite readable, but one can’t help but wonder why it exists given the alternative.

COMIC THAT MOST KICKS THE ASS OF ANY OF THIS YEAR’S SUMMER MOVIES IN TERMS OF ACTION

Secret Avengers #17
Writer: Warren Ellis
Art: Kev Walker (pencils/inks), Frank Martin (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

I don’t know what Secret Avengers was like pre-Ellis, and I don’t know what he intends it to be going forward, but if it turns out that it’s just going to be four different Avengers kicking ass on different black ops missions each month, I think I’ll be okay with that. This time out, it’s Captain America (sans mask and referred to only as “Commander Steve Rogers”), Sharon Carter, War Machine, and Valkyrie. Their mission is to…okay, I admit I was fuzzy on what their mission actually was. But I got the big picture: they have to stop a big truck driven by some sort of crazy-ass robot/zombie thing. The plot isn’t the key detail here, anyway. It’s the action. And oh, what action this comic has. Big, cinematic, edge-of-your-seat action. Kev Walker is called upon to draw some insane things, and he draws them well. When you come to a big splash page, it’s the perfect “Holy shit!” moment. There’s not much to this book other than tense, terse, explosive combat. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

NOVEL ADAPTATION THAT IS MOST CLEARLY A NOVEL ADAPTATION

A Game of Thrones #1
Writer: Daniel Abraham, George R.R. Martin (novel)
Art: Tommy Patterson (pencils/inks), Ivan Nunes (colors)
Publisher: Dynamite

Unfortunately, I have yet to read A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. I have, however, seen the first season of HBO’s adaptation Game of Thrones, which I loved. Either the HBO series is extremely faithful to Martin’s novel or Dynamite Entertainment’s new comics adaptation cribs heavily from the HBO version, but I immediately recognized all the characters and storylines I fell in love with. As such, there is no fault to find with the story. Rather, what fault there is lies in the execution. When a story is adapted from one medium to another, its origins shouldn’t be obvious; when you turn a stage play into a movie, it shouldn’t seem like a filmed play. Even the best of those adaptations find it hard to escape those trappings. The Sunset Limited, one of my favorite movies this year, never really does until the end, but it’s captivating enough that you can get past its staginess. Similarly, when you adapt a novel into a comic book, it shouldn’t seem like an illustrated novel. Sadly, A Game of Thrones feels like one more often than not. There’s an easy way to fix this: do away with the numerous captions that I assume directly quote Martin’s prose. When Ned Stark learns that Lord Arryn is dead, we don’t need three nuggets of prose to know how he feels. Show, don’t tell (or at least tell with less obviousness). To get back to the movie analogy, it would be like Tommy Lee Jones’ faithless White in The Sunset Limited saying something to Samuel L. Jackson’s devout Black, then having a narrator come on to say, “Black looks at White as if he’s a fool not to believe. After thinking of the best rejoinder, Black steps closer to White, before leaning in to say…” You get the idea.

WORST COMIC

Green Arrow #1
Writer: J.T. Krul
Art: Dan Jurgens (pencils), George Pérez (inks), David Baron (colors)
Publisher: DC

I’ve always liked Green Arrow, DC’s bushy-bearded Robin Hood character, and I always thought it was weird that on Smallville they turned him into a Pretty Young Thing with nary a facial hair. So of course, because the New 52 are all about PYTs, DC has basically rebooted one of its most interesting characters to his vacant Smallville persona. This is an awful idea, as anything to do with Smallville is in general, and the results are just as bad as you’d expect. The characters are one-dimensional archetypes, the dialogue is the most cliché-ridden I’ve seen in a long time, the fight scenes are dull, and the art is substandard. In closing, I’ll let this new Ollie Queen speak for himself. Ollie? “This ain’t no disco.” “You’re right, I have a lot of toys. But I don’t play games.” “You’re a loser. And I got no time for losers.” Once more, emphasis mine: “This ain’t no disco.

BEST COMIC

Ultimate Spider-Man #1
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Sarah Pichelli (pencils/inks), Justin Ponsor (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

I am on record as saying that the Ultimate Universe version of Peter Parker is my preferred version; it’s hard to overestimate the impact that Brian Michael Bendis and his reinvention of the character had on me over the 11 years that Peter wore the mask. And I wasn’t some kid who started reading about Spidey’s adventures because of Ultimate. By the time that title started, I was already a full-fledged Spider-Nerd. But it’s a testament to the strength of Bendis’ characterizations and plotting that Ultimate went on to engross me far more than the “regular” Spider-Man comics ever did. When Bendis killed off Ultimate Peter earlier this year, it’s fair to say I was a sobbing wreck. If Peter had to die, Bendis sent him off in the most heart-wrenching fashion possible, saving his Aunt May where he had failed to save his Uncle Ben. Having established that I have stronger emotional ties to this title than anyone you probably know, I am here to tell you that after just two issues, I am completely on board with the adventures of 13-year-old Miles Morales, our new Ultimate Spider-Man. The title of “Best Comic” could easily have gone to the second issue (from here on out, the series will be monthly), but I’ll give the nod to #1 for deftly establishing a brand new character in a world that’s been around for over a decade. It feels new, but familiar at the same time, in the best sense of the word. The first three pages are a direct call-back to the opening pages of the first Ultimate Spider-Man #1, which just gave me a happy, but Bendis quickly establishes that Miles is a different person than Peter was. Miles is a poor half-black, half-Latino kid who wins a spot at a charter school in a lottery (did Bendis see Waiting for Superman?), and though his uncle figures prominently in his life, the man is a criminal whom Miles’ father wants him to stay far away from. Not much happens in this first issue, but it’s just enough to whet your appetite for the years of new adventures that are sure to come. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sarah Pichelli’s utterly gorgeous artwork, easily the best of any superhero comic on the stands now.

OTHER COMICS YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT

Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest #1
Writers: Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Art: James Harren (pencils/inks), Dave Stewart (colors)
Publisher: Dark Horse

The quality you’d expect from Mignola’s Hellboy universe is on full display here as the amphibious Abe investigates a cold case in 1985.

All-Star Western #1
Writers: Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
Art: Moritat (pencils/inks), Gabriel Bautista (colors)
Publisher: Dark Horse

You know what’s missing from comics these days? Westerns. Here to fill that void is All-Star Western, transporting you to the atmospheric Gotham City of the 1880’s. Dr. Amadeus Arkham and Jonah Hex try to solve a string of murders in a comic that’ll suck you in from page one. The best of the New 52 after Swamp Thing.

Angel & Faith #2
Writer: Christos Gage
Art: Rebekah Isaacs (pencils/inks), Dan Jackson (colors)
Executive Producer: Joss Whedon
Publisher: Dark Horse

Angel is still intent on resurrecting Giles, and Faith is caught in an interesting dilemma: she’s 100% against bringing Giles back, but she also doesn’t want to undermine any newfound sense of purpose Angel has. Gage is clearly steeped in Buffyverse lore, with several impressive call-backs to the TV series’ mythology. Just great stuff.

Avengers #17
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: John Romita Jr. (pencils), Klaus Janson (inks), Paul Mounts (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

The Avengers tackle the Red Skull’s daughter Sin in an epic “Fear Itself” showdown. Also: the cover, featuring Hawkeye and Spider-Woman getting all personal with one another amidst the ruins of Avengers Tower, has absolutely nothing to do with the issue itself.

Captain America & Bucky #622
Writers: Ed Brubaker and Marc Andreyko
Art: Chris Samnee (pencils/inks), Bettie Breitweiser (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

Besides Westerns, another old-school staple that’s been missing from modern-day comics is the war comic. This is a damn good one, with Cap, Bucky, Namor, the original Human Torch, and Toro fighting side-by-side in 1941.

Casanova: Avaritia #1
Writer: Matt Fraction
Art: Gabriel Bá (pencils/inks), Cris Peter (colors)
Publisher: Icon (Marvel imprint)

Casanova was always a tricky title to wrap your head around, even more so now that I haven’t read it in a few years. Still, though, Fraction’s whacked-out inventiveness leaps off of every page thanks in large part to Bá and Peter’s artwo– (sound of spatiotemporal holocaust)

Daredevil #4
Writer: Mark Waid
Art: Marcos Martin (pencils/inks), Muntsa Vicente (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

The grim ‘n’ gritty Daredevil seems to have been put aside, at least momentarily, for a return to the swashbuckling Daredevil, and Waid does a bang-up job of inviting you into Mike Murdock’s world. The real star, though, is Martin, whose artwork is filled with all sorts of surprising, stylish details. A beauty to look at.

FF #9
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Steve Epting (pencils), Rick Magyar (inks), Paul Mounts (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

Without having read most of the set-up for the massive battle that ensues in these pages, I occasionally got a little lost (boy, I can’t wait until I get to stop saying stuff like that),  but the battle itself is mighty impressive. Besides that, it has maybe the biggest laugh of the month when, after a particularly awkward silence, Spider-Man says, “I’ll just go play with the dog.”

Invincible Iron Man #508
Writer: Matt Fraction
Art: Salvador Larroca (pencils/inks), Frank D’Armata (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

Tony battles his inner demons in Asgard while Pepper does battle with Sasha Hammer and the Grey Gargoyle. Fraction does excellent work, as always.

The Mighty Thor #6
Writer: Matt Fraction
Art: Olivier Coipel (pencils); Mark Morales, Dexter Vines, and Cam Smith (inks); Laura Martin (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

Now let’s rave about Matt Fraction some more! Being that I’ve never particularly cared for Thor, I’m surprised by how strongly I’ve responded to this series. There’s just something awe-inspiring about how well Fraction blends the gods-and-goddesses drama, the cosmic action, and the human element.

Mystic #2
Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Art: David López (pencils), Álvaro López (inks), Nathan Fairbairn (colors)
Publisher: Crossgen (Marvel imprint)

Even better than the debut issue. It’s very entertaining to see how Giselle clashes with the snooty apprentices, and it’s heartbreaking to watch the rift between her and Genevieve grow. The art remains beautiful.

Severed #2
Writers: Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft
Art: Attila Futaki
Publisher: Image

Snyder and Tuft’s story of a young boy searching for his father in 1916, with a creepy supernatural element hanging in the background, continues in strong fashion. There’s at least one moment that took me totally by surprise.

Ultimate Spider-Man #2
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Sarah Pichelli (pencils/inks), Justin Ponsor (colors)
Publisher: Marvel

As mentioned above, this second issue is every bit the equal of the first. There’s a wonderful father/son conversation, and Miles Morales continues to be an interesting contrast to Peter Parker. You need to be reading this.

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

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