Sugar Skull by Charles Burns

Whenever the subject comes up, Marvel swears the only reason it does so many crossovers is that people continue to buy them. Check out any of Axel Alonso’s Q&As or Tom Brevoort’s Tumblr, and there are many variations of the same complaint: Too many events! To which Marvel replies: If you don’t buy them, we’ll stop making them. So the phrase “event fatigue” gets thrown around by long-term fans sick of the constant hype machine, but it really doesn’t mean anything, because new events always sell like gangbusters. Someone’s buying them.


Event season is no longer limited to the summer. Event season is now every season. Original Sin preceded Avengers & X-Men: Axis #1-#2 (Marvel), and Axis itself will be supplanted by the conclusion of “Time Runs Out” and a new Secret Wars in the spring. Secret Wars will last the summer, and at some point soon there will surely be an announcement of what the post-Secret Wars fall 2015 crossover will be. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Axis at least has the virtue of emerging as the organic conclusion to two years’ worth of ongoing story in one of Marvel’s flagship books, Uncanny Avengers. The events of Axis have been telegraphed since almost the first issue of that series: The Red Skull, having stolen the psychic power from Charles Xavier’s corpse, has somehow managed to transform into a new incarnation of Onslaught, surely everyone’s favorite ’90s event villain.

That this was all Magneto’s fault, and that the birth of Red Onslaught was the direct result of Magneto committing the completely understandable “mistake” of crushing a Nazi to death under a giant rock, is a nice touch. The story tries to throw a bit of shade at Magneto for murdering the Skull in cold blood, but really, implying a Holocaust survivor isn’t justified in killing the Red Skull is an indefensible supposition.


All of the themes writer Rick Remender has woven together over the course of Uncanny’s run are here: humans and mutants cooperating against anti-mutant hysteria, the necessity of forgiveness, and the persistence of memory. The problem is, now that the main event has arrived, the story itself chooses a terrible moment to run out of gas. Would this story have been better if it had been “just” a focused mini-event restricted to the pages of Uncanny Avengers? We will never know.

The “hook” of Axis, above and beyond being the climax to Remender’s run on Uncanny, is that with the heroes out of commission, it falls to the villains to save the day. That’s not a bad hook on which to hang a story, all things considered—and it works here because the Red Skull is one of only a handful of characters Dr. Doom, Loki, Magneto, and even Carnage might put their differences aside to throw down against. If the solicits are to be believed, at some point in the story the world is turned upside down (on its axis, one might say), and the villains really do become heroes. (Rumors seem to indicate Sabretooth will be permanently—or “permanently”—changed enough to join the post-Axis lineup of the Uncanny Avengers.)


That the series is already one-quarter over and we still haven’t gotten to the hook is a problem. So far we’ve seen the Red Onslaught just about murdering the heroes, Magneto gathering a team of the world’s most powerful villains, and not much else. Remender suffers at times for being a deliberate plotter, but the first two issues of Axis read as if Jonathan Hickman took a pass at the scripts to cut down on the amount of interesting events per issue.

It doesn’t help that the Red Onslaught’s great plan amounts to stealing some of Tony Stark’s old blueprints to make adamantium-coated hero-killer Sentinels. (Tony made a lot of really good decisions during the Civil War.) The story reminds us that Tony doesn’t remember writing the plans because his brain got rebooted during “Dark Reign,” which doesn’t do a lot to ameliorate the fact that he should still have known that designing special super-Sentinels has never, ever gone right for anyone in the history of comics. And super-Sentinels remain as interesting an antagonist as they’ve ever been, which is not a lot.

Fans of the original Onslaught saga (God bless them) will find a lot to like here, from the callback to the original story’s use of Sentinels as cannon fodder through to Adam Kubert’s dependable art (he drew the original Onslaught as well). Marvel is getting smart about these events and shipping them in weekly or near-weekly frequency, which is good, because this would be a pretty awful read month-to-month. Retailers will already have ordered the first few issues before they even know if the story is any good, even after having moved the order cut-off date. Good business model.


So how will it all end? Hopefully better than Original Sin (which, if we’re keeping track, ended exactly the way everyone knew it would from pretty much the first page). If this writer sounds cynical about the never-ending cavalcade of events, please forgive. A good event showcases a particular kind of widescreen storytelling superhero comics can do that very few other mediums even approach, although Marvel is currently giving it a try themselves in the world of film. Good events are exciting, and even mediocre events can be entertaining. Coming so hot on the heels of Original Sin, however, and with the juggernaut of a new Secret Wars breathing down its neck, Axis needed to be a lot more than this to read as anything more than Marvel hitting their quarterly sales target. [TO]


DC’s Catwoman title has been struggling to find a clear direction since the New 52 relaunch, but that’s finally changed thanks to a major status quo shift for Selina Kyle in the pages of Batman: Eternal. Having recently discovered that she’s the heir to the Calabrese crime family, Selina now finds herself in a position of power in Gotham City’s underworld, and she’s using her new role to rebuild Gotham in a way she never could as Catwoman.

Incoming writer (and A.V. Club contributor) Genevieve Valentine is a newcomer to comics, but her script for Catwoman #35 (DC) proves that she has a strong understanding of the essential tenants of a successful superhero series. Her Selina is ambitious and headstrong, but the writer doesn’t shy away from the character’s vulnerability, she just waits until Selina is alone to show it. Selina is a woman of many masks, but one is noticeably missing from this issue: Catwoman. When it comes to costumes, Selina is wearing a sleek power suit now instead of skintight leather, and with the new uniform comes a new set of priorities.

The lack of Catwoman doesn’t mean the book is devoid of action—the issue begins with Selina and her two partners beating down some thugs in a warehouse—but that side of Selina’s life is considerably downplayed. Keeping her alter ego in the background works to the benefit of the book’s cliffhanger; when Selina spots Catwoman on a distant rooftop, the impact of that reveal is heightened by the fact that the reader hasn’t seen Catwoman for the entire issue.


This series has lacked a strong supporting ensemble for the last three years, but Valentine remedies that by giving Selina a new set of associates allied to the Calabrese family. Selina’s consigliere, Ward, is the most intriguing new addition to the cast, a man who is deeply familiar with the workings of Gotham’s crime syndicate and knows exactly how much Selina is pissing everyone off with her noble mission, putting him in an antagonistic role but making him an important source of information for the new Calabrese boss.

There’s a lot happening in Valentine’s first issue, which also squeezes in appearances from Batman and Black Mask while laying all this new story foundation. The script is substantial enough without needing to incorporate excerpts from Queen Elizabeth I’s personal letters, and while they tie in to Selina’s narration detailing her admiration for England’s past monarch, the quotes put speed bumps in the issue’s pacing.

Like the new direction for Batgirl, Catwoman #35 does exceptional work making this book feel like a distinct member of the Bat-titles, and artist Garry Brown and colorist Lee Loughridge are a huge part of that. Brown’s style is heavily grounded in reality, immediately giving Selina’s story more weight than what came before, and his dramatic layouts introduce superhero spectacle while his gritty linework amplifies the hard-boiled crime tone.


Loughridge’s signature technique is blanketing entire scenes in dominant colors the way a director uses a camera filter, and it makes each scene stand out by attaching it to a central hue that is chosen to evoke a particular atmosphere, whether it is one of tension, action, romance, or introspection. In general, there’s just more specificity in the work of this new Catwoman creative team. Selina’s world has more definition in both writing and artwork, and the result is another remarkable issue in a month that has been especially great for DC’s Batman line. [OS]


Charles Burns isn’t a creator who gives easy answers. His work is consistently challenging, unafraid of ambiguity, and often leaves loose ends that the reader will have to tie up by revisiting stories once they’re completed. Burns’ titles don’t just reward rereading, they demand it, and now that his latest trilogy of graphic novels has finally come to an end, readers have the complete context to start digging.

Sugar Skull (Pantheon) concludes the narrative that began in X’ed Out and The Hive, wrapping up the story of Doug and his dreamworld alter-ego Johnny 23 by revealing the central event that has dictated their actions from the very start. All those earlier images of fetal pigs and semi-fertilized alien eggs make a lot more sense once it’s revealed that Doug has been fighting with his guilt over abandoning his ex-girlfriend Sarah after she became pregnant, and his fear of fatherhood is reflected in Johnny 23’s experience with one of the queens in The Hive.

The horror centerpiece of this issue is a sequence where Johnny 23 is witness to the queen laying her eggs, an event chronicled in grotesque detail to highlight Johnny’s terror in that moment. It’s a haunting funhouse reflection of Doug’s emotional state in the real world, and one of many ways Burns uses unsettling, surreal visuals to evoke reactions in the reader that mirror what the characters are feeling. In Burns’ hands, a simple visual like a pink blanket with cigarette burns becomes a disturbing representation of vulnerability and decay that summarizes Doug’s father’s mental state better than words ever could.


Doug visits Sarah after years of avoiding her to apologize for his past mistakes and hopefully become a part of his son’s life, but he’s ultimately denied the opportunity to eliminate his guilt by making things right with his ex. That would be too easy, and that’s not how Burns operates. Just as Doug is denied closure, Burns’ story ends without a concrete resolution, concluding the narrative in a place that is eerily similar to where it began.

While the price of these graphic novels is high considering the slim page count, the quality of the publication design and the re-readability of the story makes this trilogy a valuable investment for comic readers looking for a complex, provocative work by a modern master of the medium. Burns’ reluctance to tie things up with neat little bow may frustrate some readers, but it invites a level of audience interpretation that makes the end product all the more engaging. [OS]


Stephen Collins’ new graphic novel, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Picador), doesn’t just have one of the best titles of anything published this year. It’s also a gorgeous contemporary fable about conformity, tidiness, and the power of individuality—ideas that are explored through one man’s struggle with facial hair that grows at an uncontrollably rapid rate. Dave lives in Here, an island city where everyone and everything is neat, conventional, and utterly boring. He’s content with his bland, repetitive life, but everything changes when waves of black hair come rushing out of his face in the middle of a business meeting, marking the invasion of Here by the mysterious forces of There, the vast world that lies beyond the sea.

Trafficking in abstractions and using a loose rhyme scheme, the graphic novel reads like a fairy tale for the modern adult, capturing a childlike sense of wonder through Collins’ striking artwork. His delicate pencils bring a softness that contrasts wonderfully with the increasingly dire story, and his characters have an Al Hirschfeld-like quality in how Collins captures their crisp expressions with a smooth, unfussy line. The artist masterfully incorporates the text into the artwork, using an array of hand-lettered fonts to make the words a bold visual elements and creating a seamless read that uses the full potential of the comic-book medium.

Collins has an impeccable understanding of using page design to amplify the impact of his script. For a sequence where the narration delves into the pervasive fear and dread that There will find its way into Here like a weed crawling through cracks, Collins takes an image of the city street and breaks it into multiple small panels, putting space between each to show the potential openings for There to enter. Most of the story is presented with typical rectangular panels, but for especially disorienting moments, Collins curves panel borders to visually simulate the sensations felt by the characters.


The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an artistic marvel, and that splendor heightens the emotion of the story. The final moments of Dave’s story are incredibly inspirational, and The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” has never been used as effectively as it is in those pages. Whimsical, bittersweet, and visually stunning, this graphic novel is the perfect parable for all ages, praising the value of eccentricity in a world of overwhelming uniformity with the help of unruly facial hair. [OS]


Grigori Rasputin knows he is about to die. Specifically, he knows that his closest friends are going to murder him with poisoned wine, but that doesn’t stop him from drinking anyway. Rasputin #1 (Image) ends with the titular character bringing the wine glass to his lips, but, as evidenced earlier in the issue, death isn’t final for a man who performs magical resurrections with his bare hands.

Framed by Rasputin’s potential murder, this first issue focuses on the man’s adolescence in the cold expanse of Siberia, where he was raised by an abusive father and an outspoken mother. The real Rasputin may have been the fifth of nine children, but he’s an only child in Alex Grecian’s story, a choice that emphasizes a sense of alienation and solitude for the character. That atmosphere is amplified by Riley Rossmo’s artwork, which opens the flashback with a two-page spread of Rasputin looking especially small as he stands in the frozen Siberian terrain.

The flashback is very light on dialogue, and the lack of communication between family members contributes to the general chilliness of the past events while putting extra emphasis on the artwork. Rossmo has refined his storytelling skills with each new project, and the clarity of his art in this issue establishes character relationships and builds tension without relying on text. Ivan Plascencia’s muted color palette grounds the flashbacks in a stark, frigid reality, creating a strong visual contrast when young Gregori uses his resurrecting powers, which manifest in an explosion of green energy that is out of place in the snowy setting.


This first issue doesn’t give the best idea as to what the series will look like moving forward, but that mystery works in the book’s favor. What Rasputin #1 accomplishes is a strong stand-alone story about a formative moment in a young man’s life, humanizing a historical figure that has become more myth than man. What happens to Rasputin after he drinks his poisoned wine? Readers will have to wait to find out, but the work done in this first issue makes sure they have reasons to care. [OS]


John Porcellino is one of our great living cartoonists, and The Hospital Suite (Drawn & Quarterly) is his most substantial work to date. Porcellino’s reputation is built on his still-ongoing self-published minicomic King-Cat, so it’s normal to speak of Porcellino as a kind of comics miniaturist, drawing starkly minimal stories meant to be read in small sips. The Hospital Suite is a sustained narrative, but the longer duration does not seem to have dulled his focus or talent.

The story begins in 1997 with Porcellino at his home in Denver, just prior to experiencing the first of many excruciating stomachaches. He spends months in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals before finally having a benign mass removed from his lower intestine. But the problems don’t end there, and Porcellino’s fragile health never completely recovers. Eventually after years of suffering, during which his shaky physical state is complemented by gradually deteriorating mental health, he finally discovers, almost by accident, the partial solution to decades’ worth of mysterious health problems: a vitamin deficiency.

But in the time it takes for Porcellino to discover this, his marriage falls apart and he suffers a debilitating relapse of OCD. Even after his physical symptoms begin to fade, he is still left unable to function, even to cartoon, due to crippling anxiety. The long road to overcoming these mental obstacles forms the book’s final act. It doesn’t end with any kind of sudden and triumphant climax, but the illustration of a long ordeal made up of equal parts therapy, medication, and devotion to Zen Buddhism. There are no easy answers and no magic panaceas, just steady setbacks and incremental improvements. With just a few well-placed lines Porcellino’s characters express worlds of joy and disappointment.


The Hospital Suite is almost certain to wind up on multiple “Best of” lists as the year draws to a close, and it deserves every accolade it is fated to receive. In its attention to detail, its unwavering humanity, and its portrait of the author as a man struggling to retain a hold on his guiding compassion even in the midst of unimaginable suffering, it is indelible. [TO]