10 Apr 2016

Mini Reviews 10/04/2016

We may not have time to review every book on our pull-lists but we do aim to provide a snapshot of what's been released over the past week, encompassing the good, the bad, and those that lie somewhere in between.

Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art: Brian Stelfreeze & Laura Martin
Marvel $4.99

Billy P: I keep hearing how Marvel has little to offer these days, especially after Secret Wars, but many of the PCG folks vehemently disagree. Tom King’s The Vision, Jason Aaron’s Mighty Thor and Doctor Strange, Mark Waid’s Black Widow, and now, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, are must-read books of the moment. Indeed, signing up Coates - winner of the National Book Award and the MacArthur Fellowship - is an experimental manoeuvre, but, based on this introduction, one that may prove to be a triumphant decision. As I write this on a blustery Sunday morning, Black Panther #1 has sold out its print run of 200,000 copies, more than twice the demand for Miller and Azzarello’s Dark Knight III. With the character due to emerge from Wakanda, and into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War, it looks like the stars may finally align for this second-tier property (not that the Black Panther is second-rate, of course, but relatively unknown to the general populace). I have to admit, I have not followed the character for many years, except for his appearance in Hickman’s multiverse-spanning Avengers/New Avengers/Secret Wars run, but I believe that Don McGregor’s inaugural run in the 1970s is one of those truly exceptional masterpieces. While reading Black Panther #1, I couldn’t help thinking that Coates is building towards something special. The issue itself is not at all about capes flying into save the day, nor is it a ‘quick-fix’ of brawls, punches and masculine heroics (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instead, Coates begins by building the world of Wakanda – its socio-cultural and political infrastructure – that has less fireworks, but more nuance and subtlety. This is now firmly entrenched on my current pull-list - I recommend you do the same (if you can manage to grab hold of a copy). 9/10

Matt C: Author/journalist but first-time comic book writer Ta-Nehisi Coates lands on both feet here with the impressive restart of a Black Panther ongoing. He wisely realises he needs to address not only the titular character but an entire nation (and a nation falling apart at the seams at that), and he does so with great confidence, bringing an epic sweep to the proceedings, nicely matched visually by some powerful imagery from Brian Stelfreeze. It’s political, it’s emotional, it’s exciting, and it could well be the beginning of something very worthwhile. This is exactly the kind of book I want to see from Marvel: smart, different and engaging. 8/10

Writer: Mark Millar
Art: Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & Ive Svorcina
Marvel/Icon $3.99

James R: Mark Millar's previous high points mean that I'm always going to gamble on his new work - the man responsible for The Ultimates (a book which seems to become more influential across more media with every passing year) and Superman: Red Son has earned enough kudos to never be dismissed out of hand, but it seems that the misses are now seriously outweighing the hits from Millarworld. Empress is the now-typical Millar Hollywood elevator pitch-made-comic: the eponymous empress, called - hilariously - Emporia, decides to undertake a daring escape from the aegis of her tyrannical husband, King Morax. Firstly, it must be said that the book looks beautiful - Immonen, Von Grawbadger (a name I'll never tire of typing) and Svorcina do some great stuff here; they are a beilliant 'widescreen comic' team, equally adept at spaceships and huge explosions as they are a telling glance. I wish they'd stayed on Star Wars though, as this turgid issue is a waste of their talents. Apart from being a dull read, I found the characters to be disinteresting, set in a weirdly disjointed world - set 65 million years ago, seemingly just so dinosaurs can be thrown into the mix with ray guns and faster-than-light ships. I know it might be harsh to judge a whole series on the first issue, but given that Starlight had such a great opening (before petering out to a dull climax) it's obvious that Millar can produce them. Sadly, this wasn't one for me. Beautiful art, but absolutely nothing else of interest. 5/10

Stewart R: By now we should all be aware of Mark Millar's style and penchant for miniseries that tell swift stories that may just dance lightly over the issues and genres that interest him and can, on occasion leave the readership a little nonplussed about potential opportunities missed. We're also aware that he tends to attract the best artistic talent in the business to illustrate these projects and their visual excellence can help mask and hide the glaring cracks. To be fair, Empress looks truly amazing thanks to Immonen being at the very top of his game (ably assisted by Grawbadger and Svorcina) as he goes about visually defining this space operatic version of an Earth from our distant past. His ship design work is exceptional, the action explosive and frenetic and the page literally sings thanks to an incredible sense of polish. The glare almost blinds you to the fact that the script is incredibly simplistic - a queen seeks to run away with her children, protecting them from their powerful, despotic father. There are small hints that things may develop in the next issue as the chase progresses, but once again this feels like Millar trying to deliver a fine looking storyboard pitch for Hollywood than trying his hand at producing something fresh, unique and potentially surprising. Time, as always, will tell. 7/10

Matt C: It’s often a hit-or-miss gamble with a new Millar series but there are enough winners in the pack to make it generally always worth the risk. Empress looked like it would be one of the better efforts from early previews, but in hindsight that expectation may have been down to the art and not the pitch. Let’s be clear: the team of Immonen, Von Grawbadger and Svorcina knock it way out of the park in the artistic category, which is what you’d expect from such talents, creating some beautiful sci-fi images that burst from the pages. So it’s a shame that the script doesn’t come anywhere near reaching similar heights, coming across as generic, uninventive and dull. It looks great but there’s no major hook to pull you into the tale, nothing along the lines of the kind of tweaking of clich├ęs that Millar is usually good at, and as such it falls flat. Currently Rick Remender is exploring similar themes more effectively in sci-fi environments with the likes of Low and Black Science so my first impression is that looking in that direction would be a better bet. 5/10

Writer: Adam Glass
Art: Patrick Olliffe & Gabe Eltaeb
AfterShock Comics $1.99

Matt C: Here we go with another selection of historical and/or fictional characters getting together to form a team that will tackle those jobs no one else can. Yes, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen springs immediately to mind (although, as much as Alan Moore wants you to believe it, he wasn’t the first writer to come up with the idea) but obviously we’re dealing with real life figures here, which perhaps requires more of a suspension of disbelief. So, does Adam Glass convince us as readers that future President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt spent time before his inauguration as a proto-Batman figure in New York, being convinced by a shadowy cabal (of other historical faces) to form a team with the likes of Harry Houdini? Well, almost. Olliffe’s artwork is substantial and striking but while the ominous, downbeat tone works pretty well, it doesn’t quite get to a place where it provides a solid reason for seeing how things pan out. The cheaper introductory price works in its favour but whether the interest will still be in place come the release of the second issue remains to be seen. 6/10

Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: Jacen Burrows & Juan Rodriguez
Avatar Press $4.99

James R: When this series debuted, there seemed to be something amiss. The preview listings had intimated that this would feature Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' take on the life of H. P. Lovecraft but beyond the quotes and diary entries that furnished the back covers, there was no sign of the author. With this issue, Lovecraft finally appears, and I don't think I am underselling it when I say that this series could be the best comic Moore has produced. It's that good. I could (and I think I will when it's all done) write a lot more on the series, but in the interests of brevity, here's why: Moore is playing with the very idea of reality with Providence. As Robert Black has been dragged further into the nightmarish rendering of New England, we've seen that he's in a world which shares the history of Robert W. Chamber's novel The King In Yellow but now he moves into events and meetings which occurred in our world. So what is 'real' here? Moore expands on this idea as he has Black accompany Lovecraft's protagonist Randolf Carver (here renamed Randall Carver) into a trip through the unconscious, dream world, a place featuring characters previously seen in the shifting space between waking and dream in the comic. This alone would make it an essential read, but delving further into the comic, there are references to characters and events in Moore's previous Lovecraft-inspired tales, The Courtyard and Neonomicon, thus tying these narratives closer together towards an unnerving single tale. Burrow's clean lines and panel compositions remain the perfect fit for the story - the subtle shift between hard line panels and those with blurred edges gives the narrative a brilliantly disturbing aspect. The word 'Genius' often gets applied too readily and easily, but with Alan Moore, the accolade is utterly justified - this is the medium working on a whole other level. 10/10

Writes: Chris Samnee & Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee & Matthew Wilson
Marvel $3.99

Matt C: This is more like it. The debut issue was essentially an extended chase sequence where the lead character could have conceivably been replaced by a number of similar individuals without much alteration to the end result. This sophomore instalment takes us back in time a couple of weeks to give us some background on what led the Black Widow to steal something from S.H.I.E.L.D., turning herself into a fugitive as a result. Consequently we get more emphasis on character work and it feels much more like a Black Widow book as the action and incident is more specifically focused on Natasha Romanova. And the action is brilliantly handled by Samnee, giving the shadowy energy of the Widow doing what she does best a real impact. I was unsure before but now I’m hooked. 8/10

Writer: Matt Hawkins
Art: Rahsan Ekedal
Image/Top Cow $3.99

Stewart R: It's back and it is indeed glorious. Hawkins moves things on from the opening Think Tank arc, glances backwards with a brief flashback summary of what has come before (rendered in the classic greyscale scheme of that opening arc too) before we're dropped in to David Loren's current life within the confines of his government's military machine. As ever, Hawkins is keen to educate the reader in the ways of this complicated human world and just how tentatively our tech-based civilisation is balanced on the edge of disaster, be it natural or made of our own invention. Rather than coming across as 'preachy' though, Hawkins wraps up this information-filled exposition within a smaller, personal story of an apparently brilliant man working from inside a giant bureaucratic machine that tries to control or contain every aspect of his life. The real hook here however, is that Loren has character flaws by the dozen and these prevent you loving him wholesale as the hero, knowing that others will get put out, hurt and possibly even worse during the course of his protests against his employers/captors. Ekedal returns with his distinct visual style that works perfectly in tandem with Hawkins script, odd visual comedy beats really hitting the mark alongside the more serious nature of the topics being dealt with. A key hopping on point and this series will be an essential read if you have any interest in the development of the 21st Century military and its repercussions. 9/10

Matt C: A very welcome return for this excellent series (has it really been two years??) featuring the military tech brat who develops a conscience and is prepared to sabotage his superiors’ plans if he feels they step over the line. The ‘What if Tony Stark was recruited by the government at a young age but took a punk rock approach to his work?’ comparison still stands on a surface level (if you’re trying to describe the book to the uninitiated) but it’s developed far beyond that thanks to the astute characterization, the smart incorporation of real life bleeding edge science and a genuine wittiness that makes the scenarios that much more relatable. Formerly a black and white comic, the introduction of colour doesn’t harm the overall aesthetic, in fact it elevates Rahsan Ekedal’s art to a whole new level. If you’ve not had the Think Tank experience before then rest assured, it’s a series that’ well worth catching up on before venturing into this new volume, which promises to be every bit as good as the last. 8/10

Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mitch Gerads
DC/Vertigo $3.99

James R: Even though we're only in April, I have a feeling that the 2016 Paradoscar for 'Most Promising Talent' is already sewn up. King has established himself as the writer to watch this year, and I can't wait to see what he does with Gotham City and the Dark Knight when he takes over on Batman. In the here and now, he and Mitch Gerards give us another terrific issue of Sheriff Of Babylon. Following the machinations and mystery of the first four issues, this chapter sees Chris and Fatima in an evening of reflection - just how has the policeman found himself in the turmoil of post-invasion Iraq? The story is beautifully judged, and has a real feeling of verisimilitude to it. This is augmented by Gerads fine work - the book feels more like a documentary than a comic. The pull-quote on the cover from Paste magazine says that this is 'A thinking man's comic' - I certainly wouldn't disagree with that assessment, and as we move further in time from the events of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, Sheriff Of Babylon already stands tall as a perceptive and compelling narrative on that chaotic era. Moreover, it also says something about the current geopolitical situation between the West and the Middle East - truly, this title is an essential read. 8/10

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