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Live From the Comic Shop – Dead Boy Detectives, Dredd: Underbelly, Saga, Sledge-Hammer 44, Black Science

Last week, I was snowed in and didn't make it to the comic shop on time; today I had to brush the snow off my car and eyed the roads for awhile, but I made it! So here's to actually getting to your comic shop on new comics day despite the polar vortex that is the East Coast of the USA right now (and much of the country to boot).

This week is a mixed bag of interesting titles—a strong week but not an astonishing week. Still, thank goodness for those compelling ongoing titles that are going to get us through the winter. I'm writing live from my local comic shop Conquest Comics in New Jersey and taking my first peek at these new books.

download-2Dead Boy Detectives #2 from Vertigo is out this week. The first issue was surprising for me—much more contrasting in its artwork and bright color palette and livelier in its plot movements than I expected, both of which made me curious to see the next issue. Written by Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham, with art by Buckingham, Gary Erskine, Andrew Pepoy, colors by Lee Loughridge, and letters by Todd Klein, the book is a clear indicator of the strengths of a team book of seasoned creators to create a unique vision in tandem. The first thing I see when I open the book is a return to the pop dayglo colors I noticed in issue #1, but there's an acid wash to the colors which I haven't seen elsewhere and I think gives the book a unique accent. It's a display of Yonda, a compelling world-building video game, and we have a return to the clever texting-style speech of Crystal, which continues throughout in narratorial style. She's settling into St. Hilarion's in all the wrong ways—and her bumpy ride keeps the reader identifying with her awkwardness. But there's more too it than that for Crystal's aversion to making friends—dark secrets in her past up the ante and make it all that much more dangerous that she's now at St. Hilarions. Points to this issue for gradually introducing the creepy in an emotive way. It turns out Crystal is no stranger to ghosts, and that's a harmony-building element as the comic unfolds, and sets up her place in future issues well. But there will be a squee factor here for Vertigo fans—Death does in fact make an appearance, and our detectives do in fact get a chance to start detecting. While issue #1 had a lot of set up to establish, the second issue does have some set up elements but successfully navigates them to establish a steadier flow for upcoming issues. Thumbs up to Dead Boy Detectives #2 on many fronts—the writing is strong, the colors are interesting, the linework is really well suited to the story being told.

download-1We've had some advanced reviews of Dredd: Underbelly from 2000AD on Bleeding Cool, so I was already aware of the comic and the generally favorable responses it's been getting, but holding a print copy prompts me to examine my own reader experience. The comic one-shot follows on from the film, which I enjoyed very much, so I'm looking to see if the characterization I found compelling in the film, and the use of chlaustrophobic settings is transferring well to a comic. With all of Judge Dredd tradition behind the comic and film, there's no excuse really if it doesn't. Written by Arthur Wyatt, with art by Henry Flint, colors by Chris Blythe and letters by Ellie De Ville, the comic starts with an area known as The Cursed Earth, and not a confined tower block with drugs running things. But I have to say, I'm immediately impressed by Flint's artwork and the way in which it gels naturally with Blythe's earthy, apocalypse-appropriate color scheme. Then there are the openly discussed themes of predation, and displacement, lost people, and even the survival of human feeling and connection right away in the comic and that's a bold move. This one-shot has the potential to connect with readers on an emotional level, and that's something that Anderson did well in the film, and does well here once she's introduced. And we do get a gradual move toward confined tower-blocks and the role of drugs in riddling the city with decay, but in this case there's a twist: the role of mutants and a drug called "Psych" which replaces Slo-Mo as a dangerous substance. This one-shot highlights the role of psy-gifted people in a way that doesn't take over the comic but creates an underlying concern and also puts Anderson in a power-position in the story, using "her methods" in contrast to Dredd's. It's a satisfying read and shows the right way to bring films into continuity with comics without sacrificing strong artwork and experienced comic storytelling. It's a win for 2000AD and the team who created it.

download-4And it's always a good week when there's Saga, with Lying Cat (I almost called her Grumpy Cat) on the cover looking regal, and more than a little dangerous. Why not put her on every cover? No, that might be going a little too far, but she is great. It's issue #18 from Image, written by Brian K. Vaughan, with art by the always compelling Fiona Staples and letters and design by Fonografiks. One more not about the cover: the black background is striking because it's not often used in Saga, and that's the way to do it, keeping some elements in reserve for special purposes. Wow—both Lying Cat and Isobel get heated up for a scuffle in this issue, and the result is a thing to behold. Two pages in and fans should acknowledge that this scene was enough to make the issue a golden one. This is definitely an "action" issue with conflicts of a deadly serious variety breaking out all over the lighthouse and cutting between the different groups of characters really works for building tension. Probably the biggest thing about this issue among big developments is that no one acts in "character" the way that you expect them to, and then you realize that this breakaway from expectations has been set up deftly in previous issues. It's the same sleight of hand that readers keep praising about Saga, never a cheap trick, but always a big reveal. About half way through the issue things shift in an unexpected way, too, back to our journalists and the effects of "Embargon" that have erased their gained knowledge. On a purely experiential level, this shift made me recognize that the pacing and layout of this issue feels different—it's a bit reversed, since we ordinarily might open with the journalists' plight. It's another smart move held in reserve by the comic, reminding us that there are many, many options in comic storytelling and using that toolbox to the full is not something we see enough of. Yes, it's a truism, but Saga just gets better and better. It's getting eerier and eerier that way.

downloadThe third and final issue of this arc of Sledge-Hammer 44 has arrived from Dark Horse, in this "Lighting War" storyline. Sledge-Hammer 44 has consistently carved out an interesting corner of the Hellboy universe, one with heavier historical accents, sensitive artwork that challenges the boundaries between fantasy and sci-fi in a provoking way, and preserves plenty of mystery around our ghost-in-the-shell hero. Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, with art by Laurence Campbell (who keeps raising red flags an artist to keep your eye on), colors by Dave Stewart, and letters by Clem Robins, this is another strong example of a book that gives a complete package feel with each element well-crafted and blended toward a coherent feel for the reader. There's always visual impact in seeing high-tech machinery in contrast to historically-grounded sophistication and bound to make the reader think about the role of technology and how different past wars and conflicts would have been under different circumstances. Here we have a stealth-style fighter, a "behemoth" mercilessly ripping WWII planes out of the sky in a full-page spread. I'm noticing again when reading this issue that Campbell always makes his characters, however important or unimportant, differentiated and realistic in their facial features and movements which takes me back to a sense of accurate war photography research on his part. This may or may not be the case, but it speaks to his dedication and skill on the comics.

And then there are things that are always reassuring reminders of the Hellboy universe connections in these separate series—here it's a basic thing—the prominent use of BOOM sound effects and commitment to the sound of warfare. Sledge-Hammer is very much his own entity, but occasionally his lines are a little Hellboy-like and that's ok—here "This chump trusted a skull-faced Nazi!" works very well. Much of this issue is aerial in nature, and that makes for good comics as we see motion, speed, and descent as isolated and tension-laden things. Sledge-Hammer's big face-off with his "skull-faced Nazi" forms the crux of the issue and it is riveting to see him up against a foe he may not be able to best, as well as receiving some truth-based critiques on his choices. Stay tuned right till the end for some strong commentary on "enlightenment" and some further insights into our ghost or "turtle" as he's often called by his enemies. This issue really surprised me not just with its entertaining and rather serious conflicts in motion, but also with its gravitas. Sledge-Hammer 44 has that element of heart that pops up when you least expect it and makes you hope that it continues its arcs for a long while yet.

download-3Black Science #3 hits shelves today from Image Comics, and if I'm honest, I was very taken with its first issue, less buckled in on the second issue and wondering what I'd make of the third. It's not due to any very strong faults in the comic, in fact it's quite a well-crafted series with some very confident moves in writing and artwork, but as much as I like science-fiction, I'm a little less compelled by very large casts of characters and especially when I have to scrabble to find something likeable to hold onto among them. I know that's partly the point of Black Science: flawed characters. Let's see if Issue #3 can convince me to stay onboard. I like the painterly cover I'll credit in its appeal to Dean White, something that appealed to me from the first issue with its resonant tones of science-fiction paperback covers of the 70's. The series is written by Rick Remender, who certainly knows the nuances of sci-fi storytelling, with art by Matteo Scalera, painting by Dean White, and lettering by Rus Wooton. One thing this comic really has going for it, I'll acknowledge, is its ability to hold onto a slim thread of continuity and consistency while creating a fairly overwhelming sense of spiraling chaos for the characters. That's not something easily done in comics, and suggests careful panel-by-panel planning. And this series has always felt well-planned as if the long game is set in stone and the characters are inevitably working out their own fates on the basis of their inexorable personalities. There's a lovely full-page spread to open the issue that gives a false sense of calm and perspective before things dive into chaos again. Grant McKay's strange indecisiveness (masked by proclamations of decisions he never follows through on) is part of the tone of the comic. We never quite know if he's just wishy-washy or if he's carefully manipulating people to keep things playing out his way as long as possible (my vote is the latter but I could be wrong).

I'll voice one of my own uncertainties about this comic though—at the risk of angering readers who don't feel the same way. I'm not sure I'm onboard with the sci-fi Native American elements in the past two issues. I'm not 100% sure that it's culturally sensitive to depict these pseudo-natives (though fictionalized out of their certainly historically-inspired elements) as violent scalpers of their foes. I understand that there's a war going on in the comic, and violence needs to be realistic and convincing, but as a Native American myself, it makes me flinch, and it may make others flinch too. Couldn't the team have chosen some warriors a little more fictionally-blended and achieved the same results? Maybe not, but it remains problematic for me as a reader. Maybe it's the arrival of the medicine man in this issue that kind of seals the deal for me. It's just too stereotypical to highlight these two features of generalized Native American culture and make them the shorthand for this culture—scalping and a medicine man. To be fair, these characters are not villainized, and are in fact handled rather neutrally while allowed to speak about their traditions and claim to their land, but I'm distracted by all this from following the bigger plot of the comic. On the whole, it's a ruthless comic that pulls no punches with conflicts between its characters and it deserves respect for doing that, and delivering a hard-hitting story for readers. The artwork, in particular, never misses a beat in creating a consistent world and characters you feel confident enough to believe in. But not every comic appeals to everyone and I think, at this point, I'm calling it a day.

That's all from me Live from the Comic Shop (finally) this week, and the comics I've looked at today have given me plenty to think about, mostly good and about the potential of comics to keep expanding on our expectations and challenging what we think of "entertainment" while delivering themes and messages that hold a mirror up to our culture and our lives. And that's why we read them, I hope—to be challenged and to celebrate the ways in which comics keep moving forward as an art form. Happy reading.

Special thanks to Conquest Comics in New Jersey. You can find their Facebook page here. They are currently offering POP vinyl collectibles: a White Phoenix exclusive and their Metallic Harley Quinn exclusive.  

Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC of Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter

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Hannah Means ShannonAbout Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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