This week is rightly being described as "massive" for comics, given the Thanksgiving holiday, it seems like companies would very much like you to be reading comics while noshing on a turkey drumstick or in the post-food haze of couch potatoing. It's a mini Chris Sprouse festival, and the stonking return of Five Ghosts, Sledge-hammer 44, Pretty Deadly and more. I'm reviewing live from my local comic shop, Conquest Comics, in New Jersey today and there's a lot to be thankful for.
First up, The Flash #25 with art by Chris Sprouse. I'll admit I'm not a regular Flash reader, though I really enjoy some of the Silver Age Flash comics and being a devoted follower of Sprouse's artwork I was delighted to see some of his art on Facebook and set a reminder on my phone to pick it up this week. The story is by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, and pencils are shared between Sprouse and Manapul, with the inks by Karl Story, Keith Champagne, and Manapul, colors by Buccellato and letters by Carlos M. Managual. This makes for a very team-created book in a studio collaborative style. It looks like the first 19 pages of the comic are Sprouse's pencils and the following 9 are by Manapul, and I have to say that Manapul's pencils and the shift in visual style is very impressive and the two approaches work very well together. "Starting Line" is set during Zero Year, and the opening splash itself is iconic, with Barry posed, running, in street clothes followed by a cop car, and as he tells us, chasing a drug addict.
But the drugs involved, of course, aren't just any kind of drug, they are "Icarus" and provide users with super-ish powers and dangerous pyrotechnic side-effects. The pacing and panel layout on the story are striking, a nice balance between intense action and decompression with a strong instict for emphasis on larger panels. The pyrotechnic situation plays in well with Barry's forensic expertise and reminds us again of the crime-solving roots of superhero traditions. Sprouse's artwork brings a freshness to the narrative that keeps adrenaline up, and Manapul's segment ventures into a slightly darker tone with particularly appealing colors used to render fiery threats. His penciling is softer and more emotive, reminding us of the humanity of the characters. All in all, an excellent issue for Flash and Sprouse fans.
But why not continue with the Sprouse-fest with Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril #5 of 6 from Vertigo? With the triple-play of Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse, and Karl Story, you really can't go wrong. It's a heavy issue as the heroes of the embattled Terra Obscura bid farewell to the Cavalier as well as some "unknown heroes" who perished saving others. This leads to some sage conversations about death and reincarnation where Strong admits "I don't know". He's always one for leaving his options open in such a strange universe. Tom Strong is still in pursuit of Tom Strange to solve the riddles of apocalyptic stuff going on in this parallel world, and let's not forget the original mission: to help save Tesla who's giving birth to a flame-child with Val. There are some fun in-references to other Tom Strong adventures, like a moon with "Bat-People", and an "alien robot" to keep you on your toes. Tom finally gets to pose his request to Strange, but as usual, things are more complicated than they appear because a hero like Strong cannot simply walk away from a world on the brink of plague-destruction.
Can they all somehow save Tesla and Terra Obscura? The clock is ticking down, and things are falling into place for the conclusion of the arc in issue #6. It's been a much wilder ride so far than even I expected, and I've been a Strong fan since the beginning. What this series seems to do so well is unpack the limitless possibilities of the Tom Strong universe and use comic construction features like the page turn and group hero scenes to defy your expectations and give you that sense of having been amazed as well as compelled to keep following the plot. It keeps a strong sense of wonder, too, which I'd consider essential to preserving the original Tom Strong ethos. Let's hope there's more Strong coming after Planet of Peril wraps up since this team of creators seems to have a grip on just how much is possible in terms of storytelling with the characters.
Five Ghosts from Image Comics returns to continuity this week with issue #7 after the Japan-set one-shot in #6, and it's back to Chris Mooneyham's artwork, too. The cover is an immediate draw, bright and open, with Fabian playing something of the Buccaneer, and his piratical-looking clothing also suggests, in color scheme, superhero overtones. This is the beginning of the new story arc, "Lost Coastlines", also an evocative phrase, well matched to the visual surprise of a double page map-themed spread introducing the arc. Right away, there's a stellar full page spread that really captures Mooneyham's pulp homage strengths in a muscle-rippling shark fight and shipwrecked Gray.
But this is also literary homage—Frank Barbiere is delivering on the adventure stories of so much great 19th and 20th century literature about marooned and shipwrecked heroes. High fives to Barbiere—he's aware of how much material is out there to draw on as inspiration and his clear enjoyment of adventure stories keeps Five Ghosts vital and exciting for readers. But there are mysteries, of course, in "Lost Coastlines", for our treasure-hunter. Sebastian, in fact, is encouraging Gray to become more "pro-active", which is worth a chuckle considering all he's been through in the first arc of the series. He's now "tracking artifacts" under the guidance of the Dreamstone. The "Men in the Shadows" are still, meanwhile, closing in on Gray in their strange game of cat and mouse. The issue introduces Gray's "old friend" Jezebel, a cat burglar with plenty of style and attitude, and she quite literally kicks ass, showing off Mooneyham's versatility with female action heroes and even his capacity for turning silent sequences into visually gripping montages.
Something you'll notice about this issue in comparison to the first arc of the series is that Mooneyham feels like he's able to take the visual pacing out of its package a little and give the comic even more room to breathe, whereas the first arc was necessarily about getting an intense and layered storyline out for readers in what might have been the only series. Now that it's been renewed for "Lost Coastlines", Mooneyham is really off the leash to deliver the visual tone of the series panel by panel and it really shines. This feels like what Five Ghosts is capable of under optimal conditions, and its fairly dazzling.
Look out for the preview of Doc Unknown in this issue, the also pulp-inspired noir tale that Fabian Rangel Jr. and Ryan Cody produced issue by issue on Kickstarter, moved on to ComiXology as the series developed, and now looks to be an Image possibility. It's a smart, sexy series with plenty of relentless hard work from its creative team and for those who have been following it, you're even closer to giving yourself a big pat on the back for betting on a winner. Here, for your enjoyment, you'll get a badass motorcycle leaping into action in silhouette. That settles the score nicely.
Sledge-hammer 44 returns from Dark Horse this week, to the delight of readers who poured enthusiasm on the first mini-series. With writing by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, artwork by Laurence Campbell, who has already established that his style is perfectly suited to period pieces, and colors by the powerhouse Dave Stewart, fans are expecting the return of the iron-clad hero to hit the ground running, but this book is full of surprises. It's moody, striking, a little shocking, and keeps on stretching the feel of Hellboy Universe books from Dark Horse. Raimund Diestel is truly creepy, and the historical realism of the book amplifies that. His blurry skull-face will probably meet you in your dreams this week after picking up the book. But he's not the creepiest thing in the book. There's a real heart of darkness making an appearance, boldly, and it brings the backdrop of WW II into focus.
It's those areas of ambiguity between historical reality and fiction that Sledge-hammer is exploring so well, and the creative team behind it seems to have no sense of handling these things cautiously. The do or die attitude on the series is appealing, and the energy of that approach is hitting the mark for readers. But for fans of the Sledge-hammer character, we finally get some origin material in deeply psychological terms, and the exposition is visually experimental and even a little disturbing. We find out how it came to be that a "soul entered into" armor. And it's quite a story. There are a host of characters in the Hellboy Universe that inspire a following, but there's something special about the way in which Sledge-hammer is being handled. He really is establishing his own gravity and has the potential to become a serious contender for hero status with something of the magnetism generated by Hellboy himself.
There's another new Image title, Black Science, on the rack today, and Image is adding to its sci-fi stable nicely. The design of the book is strong, the logos are sharp, and the remastered feel of the 70's science fiction colors and lines bring a unique voice to the series. Its painted art comes courtesy of Dean White, and brings to mind the painted paperback covers of pulp science fiction. The intensely active, confident art on the book is by Matteo Scalera and the nuanced, angular lettering from Rus Wooton is also a selling point. Colors are intense, too, like early color science-fiction television shows, but brought into line with heavier, darker tones that preserve a sense of menace when encountering alien worlds. There are monsters aplenty in an aquatic vein, from giant eels to tortoises carrying temples, fish-frog people. A team overwhelmed by the strangeness, with family ties like Lost in Space, face some tough choices under the weight of a sense of personal "failure" and "fucking up". There's a seriousness to the high-quality spectacle of the book so far that makes it a worthy choice for the science-fiction inclined. If the book can keep developing sympathy for the characters, and remind readers that adventures can be as much based on failure as success, then Black Science will develop a significant following.
Pretty Deadly returns for its second issue, that hopefully won't be torn to shreds anywhere. Seriously, there are very few comic books out there that could even remotely appeal to every single reader, but Pretty Deadly is a strong book in its own right and like many Image titles right now, the key is diversifying the genre content of comics so everyone can find the book that really makes them rejoice in the possibilities of comics narratives in the 21st century. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios take the polarized light and dark tones of the first issue's narrative into remarkably dark territory as the story really gets underway, hinted at by the skeletal rabbit of the strange myth bookending the series so far featuring a bunny, butterfly, and wolf. The "whole world's gonna burn" according to Johnny. This really highlights what seems to be at the root of the comic so far: our main female characters in many ways take up the roles of apocalyptic figures of destruction as seen in the Book of Revelations' Four Horsemen in the Christian tradition, and in many cultures concerning radical reckonings that fall on societies gone wrong from a spiritual source. They are the "night maid" and the "day maid", twin havocs for their world. Jordie Bellaire's colors continue to deliver the extremes of contrasting sequences with an unmistakably distinctive accent. Pink and orange have never seemed to sinister and even, perhaps, a little nightmarish.
Rios establishes her abilities to handle prolonged action scenes with visceral violence, and also her experimental personality in layouts. There's a tiling effect of panels overlaid on spreads that'll make you stop and consider just what she's up to visually. Without a book like Pretty Deadly, would we get a chance to witness new visual approaches in development like this? As usual, Image provides a spring-board for artists to find their voice, and in Pretty Deadly, readers also face a challenge to keep up as this non-linear narrative jumps from character to character and varying perspectives create a strange and haunting world. I wouldn't mind some kind of advice on just how to put it all together myself, but that's something that's being built up issue by issue. Guess I'll just have to keep reading. What a hardship.
Other books I'm finding alluring this week are Saga #16 from Image (well, who isn't?), Never Ending from Dark Horse (check out my full review in a separate article this week), the epic MIND MGMT #17 from the superpower Matt Kindt and Dark Horse, Letter 44 from Oni, and awww…Itty Bitty Hellboy continuing to deliver my Baltazar and Franco fix. There's just no way not to be balancing these books over a plate full of stuffing and cranberry sauce this week. Be prepared to make an argument for why reading at the table is just essential to your survival as a comics fan.
That's all from me Live from the Comic Shop this week, and happy holidays. You really have no excuse not to enjoy them given this "massive" week in comics. Oh, and yes, it's that time of year. Hopefully your local shops are having their own Black Friday sales and you'll find those back issues or trades that have been on your mind. Happy shopping, too.
Special thanks to Conquest Comics in New Jersey. You can find their Facebook page here. They are currently dominating POP vinyl collectibles with their White Phoenix exclusive and now have their Metallic Harley Quinn exclusive in stock. They are running a Black Friday Sale this week, with massive discounts on back issues, trades, and more.
Hannah Means-Shannon is senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.