That Familiar Darkness: Criminal, Volume 1

Criminal, Volume 1: CowardCriminal, Volume 1: Coward

Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colors by: Val Staples

Published: February 10th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.

Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.

I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.

Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.

I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.

I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Suburban Weirdness, Circa 1988: Paper Girls, Vol 1

paper girlsPaper Girls, Vol. 1

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Cliff Chiang
Colors by: Matthew Wilson
Published: April 5th 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Adventure
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

Paper Girls feels like a forgotten 1980s adventure that piles on the subversive twists. They don’t make movies like that anymore, let alone ones this weird.

I think the technical term here is “box office poison,” and yet I’d love to see Paper Girls up on the big screen. It begs for the kind of lovingly nostalgic adaptation that could only work with modern special effects and sensibilities.

Erin is a paper girl in the small town of Stony Stream, Ohio. Her story begins on the morning of November 1st, which is known in her profession as “Hell Night” thanks to all the teenaged trick-or-treaters still humming on stolen sugar highs.

When Erin runs into three other girls on the same route, they team up to stay safe during the night, but run into something far more sinister than marauding teenagers. Things only get weirder from there.

If you enjoy Vaughan’s work on Saga, you’ll recognize the same bizarre sensibilities here. What starts off like a throwback to Spielberg at the height of the eighties quickly collides with Vaughan’s surrealist sci-fi tendencies, and shit gets weird.

I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in the story at the end of the first volume, but it definitely grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. As soon as I finished issue five, I bought the next issue at full price and am seriously considering subscribing to the series on Comixology.

My only real criticism of the book is that the girls don’t get much character development. Erin is a good girl. Mac is a cynical rebel. KJ and Tiffany are… present? Somehow the book still works despite hanging on archetypical characters with little to no depth.

That said, that lack of depth could be a major turnoff if you aren’t a fan of Vaughan’s brand of weirdness. My hope is that future issues flesh out the characters a bit more, but either way I’m hooked.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Empty Inside: The Beauty, Volume 1

The Beauty Volume 1The Beauty, Volume 1

Story By: Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley
Art By: Jeremy Haun
Published: March 16, 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

The Beauty Volume 1 has one cool idea and not much else: there is a new sexually transmitted disease that makes you beautiful. If you contract it, you become young, thin and pretty within minutes. The only apparent side effect is a constant low-level fever, so people go out of their way to get infected. It isn’t long before half the population has The Beauty.

There are factions who object to The Beauty for political and religious reasons, but the real problem is that people with The Beauty are starting to spontaneously combust and nobody knows why. When a woman combusts in public, two police detectives (one of them infected) try to find an explanation. They face opposition from government officials trying to cover it up and a shady pharmaceutical CEO who just wants to make a profit. The story turns into a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller/mystery after only a few pages.

One of my biggest problems with The Beauty is that I didn’t care about the main characters at all. They are generic pretty people who only want to Solve The Crime And Stop The Conspiracy. Neither of them has an identifiable personality and their dialog is basically interchangeable.

The villains get slightly more characterization and/or back story, if only because we see them doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the case at hand. That doesn’t mean their motivations are clear, however.

One villain wears a skull mask and eviscerates his victims to show that he’s obviously a very bad dude, but his appearances in the story are all gore and no tension because his actions feel utterly impersonal.

When I finished reading this volume, I had to check to find out if it was a mini-series or an ongoing title. It felt like a complete (if underdeveloped) story, so I wanted to know if my instincts were correct. It turns out that it is an ongoing series even though the sixth issue wraps up a lot of threads and ends with a note of finality.

One thing I did like about The Beauty was the art. It has a clean, realistic style that emphasizes the absurd horror of spontaneous combustions. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give the art much to work with, so the book feels slight and generic.

After reading so many disappointing comics with boilerplate stories and undeveloped characters, it’s starting to feel like a problem with the medium. There are exceptional writers like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky and Brian K. Vaughan working in comics, but the ability to fully develop a character in a few panels seems like a rare talent.

Unfortunately, The Beauty doesn’t deliver on the clever idea at its core because the characters are personality-free and generic.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Rat Queens: Everything’s Coming Up Tentacles

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

Story: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art: Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic

Published: May 19, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

Rat Queens is a modern spin on classic fantasy tropes that plays within those boundaries while also subverting clichés, and does so with a light touch. It has a great premise: a group of rowdy adventurers in a fantasy world fight, fuck, and generally incite civic destruction. The twist is that they’re all women, and they work both with and against other adventuring parties with similar mixes of race and gender.

The character designs are great, and Wiebe has a fantastic sense of humor. The character development is especially well-done, and each of the women at the center of the story feel both fully developed and entirely unique. In fact, characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the series so far.

I definitely enjoyed the first volume, Sass & Sorcery, which was a story about the team as they dealt with a surprising betrayal. This second volume, The Far-Reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, tells a story that focuses on Dee, a semi-lapsed member of a religion that worships Lovecraftian horrors. I get the impression that future volumes of the series will tell similar stories that focus on each member of the Queens, so this volume is probably a good template for things to come.

Unfortunately, although I did enjoy volume two, it wasn’t as funny as volume one, and the pacing felt a little rushed at times. It opens with the Queens fighting against invading inter-dimensional horrors, and doesn’t really let up much from there. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout – part of the invasion involves strange mind control that distracts the Queens with hallucinated memories while they try to fight – so we do get a bit more back story for the characters, but it still felt like this volume didn’t gel quite as well as the first.

There was also a significant change behind the scenes when the original artist, Roc Upchurch, got arrested for domestic abuse charges and Wiebe fired him from the series. Stjepan Sejic, the artist who completed the last few issues in this volume, has his own unique style, but definitely fits very well within the established Rat Queens universe.

Although I do think this volume had a slight dip in quality, I would still heartily recommend picking up the series, and I look forward to future issues. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Wicked + The Divine: Exploding Beauty

The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1: The Faust Act

Written by: Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by: Jamie McKelvie
Colored by: Matt Wilson

Published: November 12th 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

The Wicked + The Divine takes celebrity worship to an extreme and imagines a world where the gods reincarnate in human form once every ninety years, oftentimes as the biggest stars of their generation. They are always young, beautiful, famous (or infamous) and dead within two years. Our window into the lives of the “pantheon” is Laura, a seventeen-year-old Londoner with a fan-girl crush on nearly every member.

When Laura faints at a concert performance given by a god named Amaterasu, Lucifer – incarnated here as a blonde girl with an androgynous Bowie look – takes her backstage and irrevocably tangles her life with the affairs of the gods. Laura’s time backstage ends quickly thanks to an assassination attempt on the gods, which Lucifer foils by snapping her fingers and exploding some heads. This results in Lucifer’s arrest and trial, and Laura decides that she has to do everything she can to help her idol, no matter the danger.

Before I get into the writing, I think I should state for the record that I absolutely love Jamie McKelvie’s art, which the best part of this book by far. The lines are bold and strong, and his style is so distinctive that I can identify it immediately when I come across his work. Combine McKelvie’s lines with Matt Wilson’s vibrant coloring and you’ve got a book that is absolutely gorgeous to behold. That said, The Wicked + The Divine isn’t just a pretty face; it’s also exceedingly British and peppered with Kieron Gillen’s wicked sense of humor throughout. The problem is that the story is a bit muddled and the plotting occasionally feels rushed.

Laura’s introduction to the world of the gods feels a bit arbitrary; Lucifer picks her out of a pile of fainted teenagers and then she’s neck-deep in weirdness and danger. I never quite bought into the idea that a seventeen year-old super-fan could do anything significant to help a group of supposedly all-powerful gods or that any one of them would ever rely on her for help. Lucifer reads more as a teenager play-acting the part of a butch bad girl and not the Lord of Darkness, but it still rings a bit false when Laura keeps insisting that The Devil Herself desperately needs her help.

Despite these hiccups, I did enjoy reading the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine, and I do think I’ll check out more volumes in the future. I just hope that the story gets a little tighter as the series continues and that Laura has a more active, crucial part in events as they unfold.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Sex Criminals: This Raunchy Joke Goes Deep

Sex Criminals, Volume OneSex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick

Written By: Matt Fraction
Art By: Chip Zdarsky
Published: April 29th 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Comedy, Surrealism, Sex, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Sex Criminals is a bit of a phenomenon. It’s one of those books that I heard a lot about before I ever got around to reading it – the reprint covers in particular were everywhere on Tumblr, so I saw every variation a good million times. Luckily, the hype is actually justified in this case, probably because the story is far deeper and more nuanced than the raunchy joke it seems to be.

Volume One of Sex Criminals tells the story of Suzie and Jon, who meet at a party and hook up, only to discover that both share the completely bizarre ability to freeze time when they orgasm. Naturally, they decide to use this ability to rob a bank. What that summary doesn’t tell you is that Suzie and Jon are both carefully drawn, believably human and full of heartbreaking flaws.

One of the first things Suzie reveals as she narrates her story is that her father is dead, murdered by a gunman. As far as her childhood goes, things don’t get better from there. Her mother quickly sinks into alcoholism and Suzie uses her ability to freeze time as an escape from the world.

As for Jon, he seems less troubled at first until it becomes clear that he uses his abilities to act out in anger against the world, oftentimes in petty or childish ways. Heavy stuff, all of it, and yet the book is still incredibly funny. In fact, I’d argue that one of the main reasons the comedy works so well is that leavening of darkness, which makes the characters seem that much more real.

Zdarsky and Fraction might have been content with telling a fractured romance story with a few sci-fi overtones, but they clearly felt like that wasn’t nearly enough. Instead, they include things like an extended sequence where the lyrics to Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” are hidden behind apologetic notes because they couldn’t actually get the rights. Additionally, the sci-fi elements ramp up over the course of this first arc and we are given hints that there is a larger world of sexual absurdity surrounding Jon and Suzie’s more personal connection.

The art is great throughout – unique without being overly stylized or distracting – and the writing is hilarious and affecting in equal measure. I can’t wait to read more of Sex Criminals; I’m just sad that I’ll catch up to the current issue very quickly, and then who knows how long I’ll have to wait to read more. This is, of course, the downside of creator-owned comic books nowadays: they can and do publish whenever they feel like it, even if that means months between issues.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Ugliness All Around: Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth Volume 1 by Ken Kristensen and M. K. Perker

Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth Volume 1Published: August 20, 2013
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel
Format: Trade Paperback
Length: 96 pages

Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth is an odd little series about a kid named Todd surrounded by terrible human beings. It’s not exactly surreal, but it is nonsensical in a way that is clearly meant as darkly comedic but mostly just feels sloppy. The main character, Todd, is a little boy who wears a bag over his head at all times because, we assume, he is incredibly ugly.

In this volume, Todd gets in trouble with the police when a child-murderer decides he’s too ugly to kill and gives him dolls (evidence) instead. A gung-ho police detective arrests Todd on the basis of this “evidence” and immediately puts him in prison with a bunch of hardened criminals… because that totally makes sense, right? Todd is a sweet little kid who likes chasing butterflies and now he’s in prison dealing with the Aryan Brotherhood. Comedy! Todd makes friends, learns about prison life, and narrowly avoids terrible harm on every other page.

This book, pitched as comedy, mostly just seems unpleasant and cruel. Almost all the adults in Todd’s life are uniformly awful; the only adult who isn’t terrible to him is another prisoner who kills one man and carves “snitch” in another’s forehead. The joke, see, is that Todd is so nice and everyone else is so awful.

The writing tends to forgo logic or believability in the name of “satire”. Characters behave in completely ridiculous, unbelievable ways for the sake of comedy. The author puts Todd in terrible situations because I guess it’s funny to see a nice, oblivious little kid get mistreated.

As for the art style, it’s certainly distinctive, but it mostly seems designed to emphasize the ugliness of the various characters. I guess that’s also part of the joke: Todd might be ugly under that bag, but we see nothing but ugliness and hate around him, so he obviously isn’t that bad.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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