Battlefields: Dear Billy #1 (Dynamite Entertainment)
by Garth Ennis & Peter Snejbjerg
Garth Ennis is no stranger to war comics. He’s written dozens of them, and he’s done so with no small measure of creative success. I’ve read a good number of them and applauded those past efforts. I can say without hesitation that Dear Billy is his strongest and most compelling foray into the war genre to date, or at least the first issue is. Ennis explores the notion of war from a woman’s perspective during a time when women weren’t expected to understand fully the horrors it brings. As Ennis’s heroine proves, though, there was plenty of horror for both genders in the Second World War. The strong feminist narration is incredibly compelling. The writer explores the unfortunate social realities of a different time but tempers it with a touching (and I’m guessing ultimately tragic) love story. Dear Billy is quietly heart-breaking, and it stands out as the first must-read comic book I’ve come across in 2009.
If Ennis’s script and plot weren’t enough reason to pick up this three-issue series, the art cinches it. Peter Snejbjerg brings a softer look to the harsh ideas and sadness that make for such a fascinating read. That softer look isn’t meant to suggest any kind of weakness in the female protagonist, but rather reinforces the emotional and personal side of the story. It’s unfortunate that neither cover image captures the heart of this remarkable story. Cassaday’s smoochy cover misses the mark, just as the savage stabbing depicts a fleeting moment that doesn’t directly involve the main protagonist. Nevertheless, the misleading covers shouldn’t dissuade anyone from checking out one of the finest things Ennis has ever written and the very best comic book Dynamite has published to date. 10/10
Dark Avengers #1 (Marvel Comics)
by Brian Michael Bendis & Mike Deodato
For an extra buck, Marvel offers its readers an extra 10 or so pages of story and art, so the good news is that there is value for the inflated cover price. Still, after reading the issue, I had to go back and check how many pages of story and art there were, because it didn’t feel as though I’d read an extra-long issue. The reason it didn’t feel that way is that Bendis spends an inordinate amount of time on the typical assembling-the-team scenes. It all feels rather pointless. Did we need five pages to inform us that Venom is able to look more like Spider-Man by swallowing a pill? Of course not. Long story short, Norman Osborn recruits a number of his villainous former Thunderbolts to be in his new Avengers lineup. Now let’s get on some actual plotting.
Deodato’s artwork is appropriately dark, given the insidious tone that’s at the heart not only of this series but of Marvel’s “Dark Reign” brand. Deodato tempers the realistic leanings of his style with a deliciously dark atmosphere. He’s come a long way since his days of imitating the styles of some of the rock-star artists of the 1990s. The superficial look he brought to such titles as The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman has been replaced with a more mature tone without sacrificing the dynamic energy he can bring to an action sequence. 5/10
Final Crisis #7 (DC Comics)
by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen, Drew Geraci, Christian Alamy, Norm Rapmund, Rodney Ramos & Walden Wong
Now that it’s all said and done, I have to wonder why DC thought that this story would be appropriate as their tentpole event for 2008 (yes, yes, I know it’s 2009 now). The scope is certainly worthy of an event, as is the expansive cast of characters. But the ideas are just too involved, too ambitious. I know Final Crisis sold fairly well for DC, but not nearly as well as it had hoped, given that Marvel’s Secret Invasion event easily eclipsed this title in numbers and revenue. For the Grant Morrison fan, Final Crisis had a lot to offer. I don’t fully understand everything he went for, but the immensity of the story and its metatextual elements will keep those interested in Morrison’s work talking for some time. But DC super-hero fans will no doubt walk away from this series wondering what the point was. An event really needs a fairly simple but interesting premise at its core. That ain’t Final Crisis.
Still, this is the one issue that reminded me more of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (a series near and dear to my heart). Still, it’s Morrison’s mad ideas that dazzled me. Continuing the theme from Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #2, the main point of the series seems to be a celebration of the unique never-ending storytelling of super-hero comics, of which Superman serves as the ultimate symbol. One must also applaud Doug Mahnke’s efforts. It was hard to miss J.G. Jones’s art when Mahnke’s dark, intense style brought the harsh, climax perfectly. Surprisingly, the participation of seven inkers didn’t even make for as much inconsistency as I would have thought. There were only a couple of pages that looked a bit unlike the others in terms of style.
I’ll be re-reading this issue — and Final Crisis as a whole — several more times, no doubt. It certainly merits that kind of attention; I’ll be interested to see what others write about it now that it’s wrapped. While I’m a bit perplexed, I have to say I walked away from the book feeling entertained and challenged — just what I expect from Morrison. 7/10
The Mighty Avengers #21 (Marvel Comics)
by Dan Slott, Khoi Pham & Crime Lab Studios
Like Brian Michael Bendis did with the first issue of Dark Avengers, Dan Slott opts to focus the first issue of his run on The Mighty Avengers on typical gathering-of-the-troops scenes. Unlike Bendis, Slott nevertheless manages to include some actual plotting and some nice character-driven moments. I must applaud Marvel for releasing this comic the same week as Dark Avengers #1, as there’s a much more upbeat, traditional and encouraging tone to this comic book, serving as a nice balance to the corruption and ugliness driving the other title forward. Where Slott goes awry here is with his main plot. Unfortunately, it seems he’s recycling the plot from a classic Avengers story from his youth. Still, the rehashed nature of the plot can’t overwhelm my enthusiasm for what Slott’s done with the characters. I’m thrilled we’re going to get an additional dose of Hercules and Amadeus Cho outside of The Incredible Hercules every month, and Slott’s retooling of Hank Pym’s character is definitely intriguing.
Khoi Pham’s new design for Pym’s latest super-hero motif is less than pleasing, though; it’s terribly generic in tone, making me think it’s not going to last too long. Otherwise, I enjoyed Pham’s work. He conveys the youth of the Vision and Stature nicely, and his old-school take on the Hulk is sharp and fun as well. Pham doesn’t convey the chaos-magic threats occurring the world over all that clearly, but his depiction of an evil mystic as a walking, talking spellbook was effective and entertaining. 6/10
Superman/Batman Annual #3 (DC Comics)
by Len Wein, Chris Batista, Mick Gray & Jack Jadson
Len Wein, one of DC’s go-to guys in the 1970s and 1980s, returns to retool a lesser-known but wonderfully campy and fun Silver Age villain for the 21st century. I haven’t followed the monthly Superman/Batman monthly title in years, but the annuals DC offers have made for some fun reading, with better-than-average artwork. This year’s edition is no exception, but what really drew me in was the fact that Wein and artist Chris Bastista offered up a Composite Superman story. I don’t know why, but ever since I first discovered the character in the 1980s, I was enthralled by the oddball villain. Wein’s script severs the characters’ link to the Legion of Super-Heroes. The 30th-century teen heroes factored into his origin and powers heavily, and given the mess that’s become of Legion continuity, eliminating that link makes sense. The downside is that the Composite Superman has become much more like Amazo (the One-Man Justice League), but Wein’s new monstrous origin and personality is nevertheless entertaining. The character also has a lot in common with Bizarro now, so while I love the Composite Superman, I hope DC editors and creators make sparing use of the weird, colorful, awkward character.
Batista’s crisp, bright art elicits an easy comparison to the traditional super-hero art of yesteryear, which is in keeping with Wein’s traditional, tight and solid script. Of course, one might have looked for a darker tone in the artwork, given the somewhat gruesome new background provided for the villain. Still, I enjoy Batista’s work here, and I’m at a loss as to why he’s not on a monthly super-hero book for DC or Marvel. 7/10
The War at Ellsmere original graphic novel (Slave Labor Graphics)
by Faith Erin Hicks
Hicks’s second graphic novel is as entertaining and charming as her first, Zombies Calling. She doesn’t exactly break new ground with this story, but she handles the classic outsider student-versus-popular crowd story adeptly. This new project shows where Hicks’s interests lie and the sorts of themes and ideas she likes to explore. In both of her graphic novels, she features a character who is burdened by the weight of her education and her own expectations of her future. I’m not suggesting the creator is rehashing the same material, though. My only qualm with the story is the incorporation of a supernatural element. The haunted-forest angle is colorful when it’s first mentioned in this story, but when it proves to be an actual phenomenon rather than the stuff of local myth and girls’ imagination, it interferes with the more grounded tone of the main coming-of-age story. Fortunately, that element is quite limited in the book, so much so that when it does turn up, it seems even more out of place.
The artwork is cute, attractive and convincing. Hicks’s wide-eyed approach to her figures helps to convey their youth, and her cartoony approach for some thoroughly expressive characters. Hicks is a solid storyteller, and I hope these small-press graphic novels find a wide audience. Readers who enjoyed titles from DC’s defunct Minx imprint will appreciate The War at Ellsmere. It’s quite similar in tone, character and subject matter. 8/10