Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Here's the great thing about Bone writer-artist Jeff Smith: His books are wonderful. And here's the bad thing: The beginning of a new series implies bittersweet years of waiting for resolution and answers. The first issue of Smith's new Rasl (Cartoon Books) suggests that it's going to be an enjoyable but frustrating wait: Smith raises a ton of questions in launching his story. First, a feral-looking man wanders, bloody and beaten, through a desert. Then, in an apparent flashback, he operates as a cat burglar, entering what he calls "the drift" to sneak in and out of places unseen. Before long, he's complaining that he's accidentally entered the wrong world, and a lizard-faced gunman is chasing him through alleys. The unhurried storytelling and the focus on little things—the finely drawn craters on the moon, panels of environmental details, a fight that plays out with an unhurried progression of punches and struggles—all imply, first, that Smith knows his fans are with him for the long haul, and he doesn't have to get the explanations out there up front. And second, they suggest that this series is going to look terrific and immersive in book form. And yet for the moment, Rasl #1 is just the barest hint at something bigger, a tease that could develop into just about anything. And the next issue isn't due out until May. Three cheers for attention to craft, and for a man who's earned this kind of breathing space, but at the same time… Argh! More! Now! A

Opinions have been mixed on the animated version of Darwyn Cooke's sweeping graphic novel The New Frontier, but no one who loves Cooke's version of the big DC superheroes should have any hesitation about Justice League: The New Frontier Special. The $5 floppy contains some sketches and notes related to the movie, and a couple of short Silver Age vignettes, but its main selling point is the lead story, "The Greater Good," in which Superman meets Batman for the first time when the government sends him to Gotham City to capture the vigilante. Ostensibly a 12-page Batman-Superman fight scene, "The Greater Good" is like a brighter version of Frank Miller's similar mano-a-mano in The Dark Knight Returns, as Superman and Batman try to out-strategize each other in wide panels that keep the action clear and brisk. It may be the best DC superhero story since, well, The New FrontierA

Writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch helped set the tone for superhero comics in the '00s with The Ultimates, a rethink of The Avengers that instilled the venerable team with a sense of danger, dark wit, and sexiness. Now they're taking over Marvel's Fantastic Four, the company's flagship title, and one that has to play by much nicer rules than the Ultimate universe allows. But with their first two issues, Millar and Hitch are off to an invigorating start. As Reed and Sue Richards work through a post-Civil War rough patch in their marriage, The Thing and the Human Torch find new romance, while Reed's old flame reveals—well, let's just call that a spoiler. Millar keeps the tone fun but with a sense of gravity, and apart from a tendency to over-pose the characters, he's well served by Hitch's art. With luck, they'll break their habit of delivering issues behind schedule. The demand will certainly be there for them, if they keep up the good work… B+


Elsewhere, Millar is teaming up with John Romita Jr. for a new ongoing series called Kick-Ass (Icon/Marvel), the story of a 15-year-old kid who decides to become a superhero largely out of boredom. The first issue is profane, funny, and predictably handsome, thanks to the always-reliable Romita. Millar's what-if-someone-in-the-real-world-tried-to-become-a-superhero? premise could be fresher, but he treats it as though no one had ever thought of it before, and gives every indication that he'll take it somewhere interesting. What's more, the book somehow finds the time to create an endearing character within the propulsive storytelling that the title demands… B+

Following the success of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born, the Peter David/Jae Lee/Richard Isanove comics adaptation of segments from Stephen King's seven-novel Dark Tower series, the same team is returning for an original miniseries set in the Dark Tower universe. David's original story (King serves as "creative director and executive director") takes up right where Gunslinger Born left off, with Roland Deschain and his friends dealing with the previous story's fallout. As with the first series, The Dark Tower: The Long Road Home #1 (Marvel) looks absolutely stunning, with painterly colors and magnificent attention to detail. And David has toned down the fantasy language a bit this time around, though there's still a lot of crimped "See them now… if ya can stand to look"-type orders for the reader. Still, this expansion of King's story offers more of a look at characters who were always ill-served in the books, and the presence of the same team as last time provides a smooth transition from the earlier King-plotted story, making this chapter and the previous one feel all of a perfect piece. The idea of more original Dark Tower at this late date, without the usual disappointments of a guest writer taking over from an old master? Promising as hell… A-

It's a busy month in the Whedonverse. First, there's Dark Horse's new three-issue Firefly miniseries, Serenity: Better Days. Set before the events of the movie, as the cover makes clear, it has Mal and the crew attempting to steal and fence some pricey art, and winding up on the wrong end of an experimental guardian weapon. Then they try to get payment for their work, and get handed what sounds like a wild-goose chase instead. None of it holds together particularly strongly, or has much snap; it feels like an average Firefly episode without any of the urgency, and after the increasingly climactic comics and film, a sorta-okay episode just doesn't feel important. The script by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews gets in a few good one-liners, but the first issue just feels like wheel-spinning. Possibly the rest of the series will pick up, but a third of the way through the story, it'd be nice to have a reason to care, beyond "Hey, it's sort of more of that series I liked!"… C

Meanwhile, Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans were given a reason to care about Buffy: Season Eight issue #12, which—as reported in The New York Times (!), among other places, features Buffy in a steamy lesbian tryst. Or more accurately, finds Buffy saying "wow" after an offscreen steamy lesbian tryst. The media hype predictably blew things out of proportion, in a familiar "Oh my God, Superman has died? Northstar is gay? Wait, now Captain America has died too?" kind of way, while the predictable fan backlash kicked in, largely of the eye-roll-inducing "It isn't out yet, so I haven't read it, but I'm sure it's gonna suck, how dare they?" variety. But the reality feels like old familiar ground, with Buffy having a brief intimate moment, then angsting about it, then winding up in a big slapsticky comic sequence, then fighting some monsters. It's really just another day in Buffyworld; only the sexually repressed and the terminally naïve should be flailing around over where she got her last orgasm. The rest of the new storyline that launched in issue 12, with shape-shifters infiltrating Slayer Central, is far more interesting. New guest scripter Drew Goddard (the screenwriter behind Cloverfield) seems to have a solid grip on what makes Buffy work: strong characterization, a sense of comic timing, a healthy dose of the unexpected, and some sexual titillation for spice… Issue #12: B; inane media hype: D-


Finally, IDW's Angel: After The Fall series hits issue #5, with all of the familiar old players from the Angel TV show out in the open in an L.A. that literally opened up into hell in the show's big cliffhanger ender. Franco Urru's dark, stylized art has drawn some flak, but really, the biggest problem is the way he has to limit his stylization in order to graft in familiar faces, so, for instance, Angel looks like a plastic-y version of David Boreanaz instead of like the better-rendered original characters. But Brian Lynch's scripts (supervised by Whedon) actually feel more like authentic Angel than, say, the new Serenity series feels like authentic Firefly. Lynch captures how the characters talk, but better yet, he picks up on the series' constant shocks and twists and its severely dark tone… B+

"I've always wanted the hero and the villain to win. Something about the effort both sides make is alluring to me. I didn't even know if I liked men more than women. I still don't." So says Jezzerie Jaden, the doppelgänger-like star of Jenna Jameson's Shadow Hunters (Virgin). Jaden is a down-on-her-luck young urbanite who… Well, does it matter? She looks like Jenna Jameson and she fights demons, which is why this comic exists. Jameson and Christina Z provide the story, Z provides the script, and Mukesh Singh provides the surprisingly tasteful, surprisingly attractive art. This isn't Witchblade, in other words. But as a piece of storytelling, Jameson's comics-world brand extension plays like a direct-to-DVD supernatural thriller. It has slightly more artistic merit than her older preferred art form, but not by much… D+


Parents who happen to be fans of Kazu Kibuishi's beautiful Flight anthologies can slap the comics training wheels on their kids with Flight Explorer Volume 1 (Villard), the first in a series bringing the Flight sensibility down to kid level. Not that that's so much different, since the Flight books have always been pretty bright and kid-friendly; the difference is more in a script vocabulary aimed at younger readers than in a dumbing-down or simpling-up of sensibility. Like Flight, Flight Explorer is a Kibuishi-curated collection of short, beautifully drawn, vividly colored comics stories covering a wide variety of topics. Many of them read like visually sophisticated but emotionally simple cartoons, like Johane Matte's "Egyptian Cat: Perfect Cat," in which a troublemaking feline is sulkily jealous over a too-perfect rival who's sucking up all the worship. Or Jake Parker's "Missile Mouse: The Guardian Prophecy," which has a spacefaring mouse dealing with an old enemy on behalf of a fearful, primitive new race. The emotions in this collection run fairly shallow and bubbly, but as is usual for Flight books, practically any random page would make a lovely poster, and creative, joyous cleverness abounds… A-

Another kid-friendly, art-amazing series, Mike Bullock's Lions, Tigers And Bears, looks like the world's greatest cartoon that just hasn't been animated yet. With conscious, loving nods to Calvin And Hobbes, it takes place largely in a childhood fantasyland, where kids' stuffed animals take on life to protect them from evil. The sensibility feels straight out of Disney's animated series Gargoyles, and Jack Lawrence's art in the first half of Lions, Tigers And Bears: Betrayal (Image) evokes that series as well, with big, chunky characters and deep, rich colors. It's surprisingly easy to read this book as a set of storyboards, and to hear the exact background music and iconic cartoon voices Disney would plug in to turn this into the kind of show that would spark Transformers-like devotion in its viewers decades from now. At the same time, the book has some of the flaws of '90s network cartoons as well: The positive believe-in-yourself messages are repetitive and strident, the storytelling is a bit simplistic, and the action is visually muddled and awfully soft-edged, given the serious themes. Still, for anyone who actually played pretend with their toys as a child, this series taps into the vivid seriousness of childhood games, and the kind of dark fantasies that parents would probably prefer to think their sweet li'l kids would never dream of… B


DC's all-star team, the Justice League Of America, was in pretty rough shape by 1987, having lost most of its key players in a revamp that moved the team's headquarters to Detroit, and replaced heroes like Superman with new characters like Vibe, a breakdancer with sonic powers. (An aside: Can we just take this moment to say that we really love comic books?) The team of writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, with artist Kevin Maguire, offered a daring revamp in the form of Justice League International, a series now getting the first volume of a long-overdue reprint treatment. Giffen and DeMatteis balance superhero adventure with warm, patter-and-slapstick-rich humor. The combination never should have worked, but it gelled consistently throughout their run—and beyond, once Maguire, regrettably, left the book, taking his inimitable gift for expressive faces with him. Of particular note: The great Mutt-and-Jeff team of Booster Gold, hapless heroic profiteer from the future, and luckless gadgeteer Blue Beetle… A-

If Dennis The Menace were Japanese, potty-mouthed, and actually, y'know, menacing, he might be a lot like Shinchan, the 5-year-old star of the manga series Crayon Shinchan. CMX's Crayon Shinchan Vol. 1 collects stories from 1990, the first year of the series. Fans of the anime version of Shinchan will find the paper version pretty familiar: The kindergartner torments his parents by making lewd jokes, ogling women, pooping indiscriminately, and waving his doodle around whenever possible. Cartoonist Yoshito Usui keeps the pace fast and the humor crude, but Crayon Shinchan still comes off as cutesy and mild. It's interesting mainly for the way it shows how standards of "inappropriateness" cross cultural boundaries… B


Much like the recent G.I. Joe Vs. The Transformers omnibus, Voltron: Defender Of The Universe Omnibus (Devil's Due) is aimed fairly squarely at people who grew up with the show on TV and want to relive it, in a considerably shinier modern form. This version of the story initially follows the broad outline of the American version of the cartoon, but gives a little more detail about the backgrounds of the five Galaxy Garrison pilots sent to a remote planet to recover Voltron, a giant, ancient robotic force for good. But once they have the five giant lion ships that transform into Voltron, the focus becomes more on the broader politics of their universe than on beating down the weekly giant ro-beast. Still, these Voltron stories aren't all that complicated—no more so than the three Star Wars prequels. There are a lot of factions, but they operate in large, simple sweeps, through iconic characters—including the 15 pilots of "vehicle Voltron," which gets tied into the story as a Voltron knockoff built via reverse engineering. Again, as with G.I. Joe Vs. The Transformers, half the fun is in the recognition, as familiar characters and situations weave into a marginally more adult story, and the other fun is in seeing them portrayed with ultra-glossy modern art. Seven different pencilers worked on the two miniseries that make up this 300-page book (including Runaways' Mike Norton and Ultimate Spider-Man's Mark Brooks), so the art is all across the board, with the characters appearing as chunky, heavily stylized Rankin-Bass creations in some issues, and various widely varying modern-anime types in others. It's worlds better than the original cartoon, but the writing (by a cast including Mark Waid and Dan Jolley) isn't nearly as improved. It's excellent nostalgia-bait, but as its own independent thing, it skims the surface of some interesting situations without delving into what could be a much deeper story. For something so visually colorful, it's pretty four-color in nature… B

Devil's Due's other just-released glossy omnibus, Hack/Slash, makes little pretense at being more than it is: a wallowing, rockin' compendium of sexed-up ultra-gore. Hot, provocatively dressed Cassie Hack and her giant deformed companion Vlad travel around fighting "slashers," the back-from-the-dead unstoppable killers that form the heart of every slasher movie. Each one has a gimmick—the former veterinarian's assistant who calls up rotting zombie pets, the evil dead kid who attacks his victims with their own favorite toys in dreams, and so forth—and most of the plot arcs feel like familiar slasher movies with the blood-and-guts level amped up. (There's no "trap Jason in hell" or "defeat Freddy in dreams" clean-break endings here; in Hack/Slash, the enemies generally need to be messily dismembered and disemboweled before they'll stay down.) Too much is made of Cassie's tragic past and burning angst—at least, it seems like too much in a gleefully trashy comic that also makes so much of her frequently all-but-exposed body, and the way her nipples jut through whatever she's wearing—but as sex-n-blood epics go, Hack/Slash is a reasonably fun deconstruction/reconstruction of the genre, with a solid sense of humor about itself. The Evil Ernie crossover is surprisingly sincere, but the Chucky crossover, in which Vlad and Cassie team up with the crazed, menacing little doll, sums up the series' crazed, gore-happy, lunatic energy…B


Following X-Men Fairy Tales and Spider-Man Fairy Tales, Avengers Fairy Tales (Marvel) recasts familiar childhood stories with characters from Marvel's super-team. Scripted by C.B. Cebulski with art by João Lemos, the first issue features Peter Pan reimagined as an adventure featuring a spritely Captain America as Peter, and Scarlet Witch as Wendy. It's charming enough, but if there's a point to it beyond cute drawings of The Wasp as Tinkerbell, it remains elusive… C+

David Lapham made his reputation in the comics industry with his self-published Stray Bullets, a post-Tarantino crime series heavy on punchy pulp dialogue, ironic twists, and juvenile posturing. Over the past decade, Lapham has improved his dialogue and characterization, but he still basically writes like he draws: with broad outlines and not much fine shading. Lapham's new Vertigo series, Young Liars, is told from the point of view of a Texas kid who moves to New York and falls in with a crowd of street punks, including one—the daughter of a Sam Walton-style discount-store magnate—who recently survived an assault, and now considers herself indestructible. Young Liars' first issue is kinetic and generally entertaining, but Lapham doesn't appear to have anything more in mind besides putting some roughly defined bohemians through their paces, for voyeuristic thrills… B


It takes a little while to get fully steeped in the weird milieu of Lars Brown's North World, where "swordsman" is a more-or-less routine career in an otherwise modern country full of skyscrapers, coffee shops, and actual nuanced adult people. When Brown's protagonist, Conrad, starts North World Vol. 1: The Epic Of Conrad (Oni) by running around in the woods, talking about slaying beasts, earning the attention of bards, and becoming a legend, it sounds like he and his companion of the moment are playing the kind of live-action role-playing game that sends people out into the woods with foam armor and PVC swords. But no, he really is out there fighting a giant talking spirit bear. Afterward, his agency gives him a plum assignment back in the hometown he abandoned long ago, where his ex-girlfriend is about to get married. From there, the story just keeps getting more unexpected, as it deals more with Conrad's family issues, the fallout from his troublemaking early years, and his relationship issues than it does with fantasy hack-and-slash. While not as deeply nuanced as Alex Robinson's work, Brown's story has some of the same verisimilitude, small-detail story focus, and talent for equitable characterization, with some of Bryan Lee O'Malley's humor mixed in, and an agreeably unique creativity. Conrad's story doesn't wrap up here—it hardly could, given all Brown's narrative byways, into everything from bored small-town bullies to the minor havoc caused by an escaped, windblown $20 bill—but Brown's talent for crafting intelligent surprises, and for creating characters who seem like they'd actually fit into real life (if real life was full of demons and monsters), ensures that every side trail leads somewhere worthwhile. A good chunk of Epic Of Conrad, and a ton of sideline North World stories, are archived at north-world.com, for those who need convincing… A-

Mark Sable's Hazed (Image) is aiming at being a scathing college satire, but it goes too far to be taken seriously—past over-the-top and well into just ridiculous. He starts off well enough, with a scenario that throws a dumpy, strident feminist and a perky, rail-thin blonde together as college roommates, then has them both sucked into the Greek system, which does its best to chew them both up and spit them out, in different ways and for different reasons. But while anyone nerdy enough to read comics would probably agree that there are serious problems with fraternities and sororities, Sable's spastic scripting doesn't let anyone or anything seem real for long, and the book turns into a sort of fever dream in which skinny characters become morbidly obese and then skinny again practically overnight, and personalities alter wildly offscreen in similarly abrupt fashion, with no real sense of development. If he stuck to one POV character long enough to evoke any sort of sympathy, the book might work better, but everyone is alternately so awful and so unpredictable that it's hard to find the book's center, and sorority exchanges like "How do we move up in this world?" "By fucking guys who fuck girls who are cooler than us." reveal a deep well of contempt without any balancing sense of humor. Robbi Rodriguez' slapdash art—sort of an even-more-exaggerated version of the Bruce Timm look, where all men are slabs of meat and all women are circle-heads on stick-bodies—doesn't much help. Everyone already looks too much alike, and when the art gets lazy, it's hard to tell one broadly sketched (narratively as well as artistically) character from another. There's some humor here, and a story, but it's hard to find, and the search is frustrating… C-


Ted Naifeh's previous three Courtney Crumrin books have all been admirably creepy, low-key adventures about an unlikeable little girl and her experiments with witchcraft, which usually lead to mischief. But book four, Courtney Crumrin And The Fire Thief's Tale (Oni), largely moves Courtney to the background; she's around as an observer, and she frequently tries to get involved in the story's action, but she mostly gets shut out by the adults around her, which gives events a curiously predestined, fate-heavy tone. The plot involves Gypsies, werewolves, and a love triangle, evoked in a way reminiscent of a similar plot in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, but what comes through most strongly are the emotions: Courtney's impotence and frustrations are so palpable that they even touch her normally unflappable uncle, leading to a sense that the series is slowly shifting in a new direction. And yet this book on its own isn't nearly as satisfying as its predecessors, possibly because of the lack of an audience avatar whose actions make a real difference. B-

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