By Erik Grove
It's late March and I've got a lot of comic books on my mind. I'm looking forward to a great weekend in Seattle next weekend at the Emerald City Comicon (say hi to me! tweet @erikgrove to get my attention) and there are a lot of current and upcoming books I'm pretty excited about. It's a good time to browse the shelf at your local comic shop. Don't believe me? Well, you might want to try these Essential 8 Comics from the Shelf for March.
Image Comics isn't the same publisher it was 20 years ago. What started as a paradise for superstar artists, shoulder pads and MTV haircuts has turned into the publisher of some of the smartest independant comic stories on the shelf. One of those smart independent comics is Ales Kot's espionage actioner, Zero. This comic tells the story of Edward Zero, a secret agent working for a shady Agency in a near-future world full of intrigue and secrets and just a touch of super science weirdness. While this isn't the first attempt at that kind of story, what makes Zero stand out all comes down to the little details.
One of my favorite things about the book is that each issue is a standalone story, bouncing forward and backward through Zero's life drawn by a rotating rogues gallery of incredible artists. Generally, a comic loses a sense of cohesion when there's no consistent artist but Zero avoids that by the brilliant, unifying color design of Jordie Bellaire and the taut, meticulous story that Kot is telling. Every issue ends up being a new experience and a new surprise all building an already rich world and mythology. This book also features some of the most brutal, visceral action sequences I've ever read. The momentum on this comic is just starting and now, with the first collection released earlier this month, is the perfect time to catch up.
Of all the Gold Key characters the one that always appealed to me the most was Magnus: Robot Fighter and I think the appeal is right there in the name – he fights robots. More accurately he fights them with his bare hands. That's pretty stunningly cool and it was enough to get my attention. As part of the Gold Key relaunch through Dynamite, Fred Van Lente and Cory Smith have torn the concept of Magnus down to the studs and constructed a completely re-imagined character and world that has a lot in common with Planet of the Apes (including a key cameo from the Statue of Liberty). Van Lente has given Magnus a very good foundation and motivation. He's an unlikely hero, a high school teacher from a sleepy mountain town that finds himself alone against a world of humanized robots. Smith delivers character designs and vastly different landscapes with confidence and gives us great character "acting" and storytelling. This has all the hallmarks of classic sci fi action movies with bonus bare handed robot fighting. After just this first issue, I'm definitely in for more.
There are a lot of reasons why I was skeptical about this comic but the biggest reason is probably the slug on the cover that says "From the Creators of Mortal Kombat." Injustice: Gods Among Us is a tie-in comic to a DC heroes fighting video game that is somehow one of the best superhero comics on the market with some of the best DC stories this side of Justice League Unlimited. If you haven't read this comic already, you might need to go back and re-read that sentence just to sure you read it correctly. Yes, this is a video game tie-in comic and yes, it's really, really, really good. From the first issue, (issue is a strange term here as this available digitally and then has three digital issues later collected for print) this comic takes very familiar DC characters with very familiar backstories and personalities and throws very logical new threats at them that completely change everything.
Presumably the remit from page one was to make Superman fight Batman so that there could be an explanation for the video game. The way this is accomplished is that the Joker quickly, effectively and totally destroys just about everything Superman cares about and kickstarts the best superhero versus superhero story I've ever read and every single step of the way these characters remain the characters I've known for decades. Everything is on the money here. I like this portrayal of all the characters here more than the vast majority of comics featuring them for the last decade. I care about them more and I'm completely surprised by each and every tragic turn of events. I binged through the first year (36 digital issues, 12 printed, 2 collections) in digital format in one sitting and just kept going. If you love DC characters, give this a try. Just tear the cover off and forget the Mortal Kombat part of it if it gives you pause. Trust me. This is good.
She-Hulk #1 and #2
With their current All-New Marvel Now launches, Marvel has been releasing books with characters beyond the traditional marquee brand names. This initiative has seen comics like Black Widow, Loki, Moon Knight and Charles Soule and Javier Pulido's She-Hulk. I've liked a lot of the new books and think they've added a lot depth and diversity to the line. She-Hulk stands out both because the character has a rich history with several well regarded runs and because Soule and Pulido are doing stellar work. She-Hulk focuses on Jennifer Walters' professional and personal life and it's paced like a David E. Kelly legal drama that just happens to feature a very tall, very strong gamma powered lawyer with superhero friends.
I'm a sucker for those kind of legal dramas and I've really loved the way Soule has balanced making Jen both incredibly competent and hard-luck at the same time which is really tough to do credibly and shows a real depth of character understanding. It's easy to make your character unflappable or inept; it's harder to create a character with a mix of strengths and flaws. Pulido's work is also awesome here and the first thing that drew me to the book. Pulido has a lot of great common design sensibilities with artists like Marcos Martin and Mike Allred but remains wonderfully distinct. There's some great storytelling in the second issue in particular that's remained with me where Jen is touring the building with her new landlord. I have been a big fan of She-Hulk in the past most recently with Dan Slott's incredible run but Soule and Pulido are firing on cylinders here and I have a feeling this will be a new classic take on the character.
After a hiatus, Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque have returned to American Vampire with a first issue that should be studied as an example of how to create a jumping on point midway through a series that quickly brings new readers on board while also perfectly satisfying long time fans. After a nicely ominous prologue set in the early 19th century, the action moves into the 1960s and we are quickly caught up to date with the main protagonists of the series, Pearl Jones and Skinner Sweet. Snyder and Albuquerque do a remarkable job of making this all look so easily but it's a technical marvel of storytelling that feels denser and more engaging than a single issue of a comic book should. If you haven't read American Vampire before, you can start comfortable right here and you absolutely should. If you have read American Vampire, you're in luck because it's better than ever.
I don't like featuring creators in consecutive weeks because I like to keep the spotlight moving to different creators and comics. There's such a wide field of amazing creators and comics, it seems a shame to keep coming back to old favorites. So, I didn't want to include Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight on this list and in fact I told myself for most of the research and writing process of this column that I wasn't going to but I kept thinking about this book. I kept talking about it too with friends that are interested in comics and are outside of comics. It's the sort of comic book that you want to show someone and say "you have to see this!" So, it's with both reluctance for my format busting and absolute enthusiasm for this comic that I keep coming back to Alex de Campi's insane midnight-movie-distilled-into-a-comic-book masterpiece, Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight. Here's what you need to know about Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight: every two issues features a very different kind of story. The first two issues deal with invading aliens and an eyepatched cop with more tattoos and bad-ass than a Danny Trejo wet dream. The second two issues takes a classic women in prison story and puts it on a spaceship with a maniacal warden and the third story is a good old fashioned, bloody as Hell revenge epic set in the Middle Ages featuring a vengeful, blood splattered bride. These stories are overflowing with sex and violence and masterfully trashy ideas. I had four loves when I was a teenager: comic books, punk rock music, exploitation horror and sci fi movies and Dungeons & Dragons.
Near as I can tell from reading this book, de Campi built a time machine and traveled to that time in my life. She's grabbed Cinemax guilty pleasure films and fused them with comics and then she brought them forward to the present and kicked my ass with the resulting Frankenstein monster. There's something special in exploitation cinema, something that's more than the sum of its parts. The people that are usually the victims in mainstream action movies are the heroes. The downtrodden get to be empowered and unleashed and De Campi is smartly aware of the subversiveness in this subject matter without making it at all heavy handed. There's a dirty, seedy revelry in grindhouse cinema and De Campi's scripts and the amazing artwork of her collaborators, Chris Peterson, Simon Fraser and Federica Manfredi get it just right. With all due apologies to my format, this is a book you should pick up off the shelf.
Rat Queens #1-6
Curtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch straight up surprised me. I haven't been a fan of other sword and sorcery comics in the past and I usually read at least 5 times as many comics as end up in the final column. Rat Queens was a "maybe" for me to read. I checked out the first issue digitally and I was hooked right away. The first thing that got me was Upchurch's energetic and instantly addictive artwork. It's candy for my eyes. The characters and the scenes are so beautifully and kinetically rendered that I wanted to keep reading and that's where Wiebe's story kicked in. By the end of that first issue they had me completely and I had to keep reading.
Rat Queens tells the story of a group of 4 swords for hire in a drunken Dungeons & Dragons adventure and it boasts better profane one-liners than I've ever heard from a tabletop group. The characters are really easy to get to know and instantly likeable and this book is seriously funny. Wiebe knows exactly how to write this. He deftly drops backstory seeds, keeps the momentum quick and the banter witty and grin-inducing. My wife became quickly curious what was making me laugh and read several issues over my shoulder. She liked it enough to recommend it to friends later that day. That's two brand new fans of Rat Queens. I think there are more. They just need to give this book a chance. The first collection that contains these issues is due out in early April and these issues are also easy to get digitally if not from your LCS. It's very much worth a try.
Flashback Pick: Hellboy: Seed of Destruction
In honor of Hellboy Day (3/22), the 20th birthday of Mike Mignola's famous creation, I went to my bookshelf and reread Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, the collection of the first Hellboy miniseries with other early work. Scripted by John Byrne, two things are clear from reading this first story: first, Mignola is still exploring and defining his pulp infused Lovecraftian universe and second, this universe was something unique and spectacular. When Hellboy first came out 20 years ago, I wasn't sure about it, the name seemed somehow Legion of Superheroes meets heavy metal and I couldn't figure out why one of his fists was bigger than the other. I remember flipping through the comics and being impressed with Mignola's artwork but I didn't become a big fan until after the Guillermo Del Toro film a decade later.
What Del Toro got so right in the film was the mood of Hellboy – a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Lovecraftian horror, a little bit gruff big red guy that punches monsters in the face. Once I got that mood, I found that the comic series always had it and it was very accessible and engaging. This first volume deals a lot with material that was repurposed in the movie but you're given more of an insight into Hellboy's thoughts and personality and most importantly it features Mignola's incomparable art. The film has more room to breathe and tell the story (this was only a four issue mini) so this can feel a little too brief but it's still a very good read and a key primer and starting point for Hellboy. If you've never read Seed of Destruction, it's a very good place to discover for the first time, or to remember, how captivating Hellboy is.
Special shout out to everyone who's read and shared this column with their friends. family or baristas. I love talking comics and I am grateful for the audience and opportunity. This column doesn't exist if you don't enjoy it and spread the good word. If you dig it, share it on Twitter or comment on it. If you have suggestions, let me know.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let's talk comics.
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book lover that lives in Portland, OR.
I'm going to be in Seattle at the Emerald City Comicon this weekend!!! If you're going to be there, you can agree or disagree with me in person. Get my attention on Twitter @erikgrove or go to my webpage and send me a message through one of those form thingys at www.erikgrove.com. Also, don't forget the FAQ for this column! If you want to know what kind of crazy logic I use to get to the final product, I pull back the curtain right here.