I’ve been rather lax in recent weeks when it came to writing about comics, and now that I’ve gotten back to it, I found I’ve got plenty to say about stories and art being told in my favorite medium. With this set of capsule reviews, I turn my attention to four recent first issues: Marvel Knights 20th, Outer Darkness, Suicide Squad: Black Files and Zorro: Swords of Hell.
by Donny Cates, Travel Foreman & Derek Fridolfs
It can be argued that the Marvel Knights imprint, led by Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, was integral to a comeback for the Marvel brand, and the stories told in those MK comics are strongly reflected in the success of the comics publisher’s properties in other media today. As such, I’m pleased to see Marvel revisit that imprint here, but what’s confusing is the apparent lack of participation by any of the writers and artists involved in that creative rebirth. All we get are variant covers from some of those involved with MK in the late 1990s. Now, to be fair, I found the plot here — the notion that the colorful players of the Marvel Universe have lost their memories of powers and larger-than-life adventures — to be entertaining and diverting, and Cates’ script certainly captures the mature, tormented tone that was characteristic of the MK brand years ago. The conflict of how these amnesiac heroes and villains will overcome this obstacle is intriguing, but ultimately, it offers only a small measure of dramatic tension, as the audience knows things will be returned to normal, that the status quo for these icons will be restored. Furthermore, I’m confused as to why a different writer and artist are apparently stepping in to handle the next issue, according to a blurb at the end of this issue; that would seem to open the door to some inconsistent plotting, scripting and visuals.
Travel Foreman’s style is a nice fit with the tone Marvel would have been striving for this look back at the MK imprint. The initial pages featuring Matt Murdock certainly put one in mind of Joe Quesada’s style, reflecting his work on the Daredevil book that anchored the imprint 20 years ago. But Foreman’s style shifts throughout the book — perhaps by design, to reflect other MK artists’ styles — but the inconsistencies are distracting. I also found his attempt to give us a look inside a police cruiser (containing Frank Castle and Bruce Banner) to be terribly awkward; the perspective and dimensions are all wrong. 6/10
by John Layman & Afu Chan
I didn’t know what to expect from Outer Darkness, but given the strength of John Layman’s writing on Chew, I suspected it would be good. But it’s not good — it’s much better than that. Take one part Star Trek, another part Alien and one part Ghostbusters without the goofiness, and you’ll begin to get something akin to Outer Darkness. Layman brings an intensity and grit to this blend of science fiction and supernatural horror that’s thoroughly entertaining, and he quickly establishes a palpable sense of danger and dread in just about every scene. Afu Chan’s artwork exhibits an interesting blend of Asian and European influences; Outer Darkness looks as though it could easily have been a translated manga, but it would also be at home in the pages of the old Heavy Metal magazine. Chan’s mix of hulking brutes and slender figures for the various characters really grabs the eye, as does the unusual design for the ship later in the issue. Chan leans toward simplicity in his designs, but they’re nevertheless effective at conveying the weird and horrific elements that drive the story. 8/10
by Mike W. Barr & Philippe Briones/Jai Nitz, Scot Eaton & Wayne Faucher
I absolutely loved Mike W. Barr and the late Jim Aparo’s Batman and the Outsiders in the early 1980s; the sense of family that he built in that book worked quite well. In the first story in this limited series, Barr returns to two of the original characters he co-created years ago and tries to capture that same magic, but he misses the mark. Shoehorning Halo into Katana’s new continuity just doesn’t work, doesn’t even make any sense. Furthermore, this story is heavily founded on a previous Suicide Squad/Katana mini-series that I haven’t read, and while barr’s script offers some exposition, I always felt a bit left out of the loop. The art by Philippe Briones never rises above merely capable, standard super-hero fare. The panel progressions are occasionally awkward and confusing, and the new design for Halo is painful (especially when one compares it to the simple elegance of the look Aparo crafted decades ago).
Scot Eaton and Wayne Facher’s art for the second story, featuring a mystical Suicide Squad led by El Diablo, is a bit more polished than Briones’ work, but it remains rather ordinary and unremarkable. Something weirder, airier would have worked better, as is evident from Frazer Irving’s cover art. I did appreciate the designs for some of the new characters, though, as well as Nitz’s character concepts and names. Of course, it seems unlikely these new players will survive long; they’re clearly fodder. Nitz’s plot requires Amanda Waller to be implausibly resourceful, able to plant a brain bomb in a ghost’s head and to steal Madame Xanadu’s tarot deck, for example. Also distracting is the almost child-like tone of the narration, which takes the form of a letter from El Diablo to his former Squad teammate, Killer Frost. The device doesn’t work at all in the context of this story (at least, not yet). 3/10
by David Avallone & Roy Allan Martinez
I’m far from well versed in Zorro lore, having only seen those Antonio Banderas flicks and read a handful of Zorro comics in my time. I know enough to figure out this new take on the character appears to be set in a time after he’s retired his mask and cape, so the plot isn’t confusing to those with only a passing familiarity with the property. But the notion of Zorro and his community being plagued by hordes of the undead felt… off. Maybe the supernatural has been part of his world before, but it certainly isn’t what I associate with the character. Furthermore, there’s no context for the conflict, for the beef that’s sent these articulate, fencing zombies after Zorro’s people. The concept also feels a little generic, a bit bland, and none of the action grabbed me. The same can be said of the characters. Beyond fierce women willing to fight and dashing heroic men, there’s no substance to be found among them.
Martinez often aims for a photorealistic look throughout this initial issue, which strikes me as an odd choice, given the surreal and monstrous nature of the antagonists. There’s an edge throughout that reminded me a little of the style of Leinil Yu. The artist’s effort fall short in conveying the sense of place; it wasn’t until the final pages that I realized the presidio to which the hero sends the women of the village is a considerable distance from the compound where the unholy attack first unfolds. 4/10