If ever there was a book made for David F. Walker to write, it was Power Man And Iron Fist #1 (Marvel). Well versed in the history of both blaxploitation and kung fu movies, as discussed in his interview from last year, Walker first worked for Marvel in the excellent “50 years of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Fury one-shot issue. He has been proving his chops lately with characters like Vic “Cyborg” Stone and Shaft, with new issue for the latter released this month after the last miniseries ended almost a year ago. Walker’s already considerable skill has been refined as his work has expanded to new characters and publishers, and it’s gratifying to see him return to a genre and tone that suit him very well.
Luke Cage is perfectly exasperated and pragmatic, frustrated both by his former partner Danny Rand and the corner the other man has painted him into. Rand, better known by some as Iron Fist, is endearingly enthusiastic and annoyingly dogged in turns, a golden retriever in human form that needs Luke not only to ground him in reality but also as a straight man. If Jessica Jones and Luke are Marvel’s Nick and Nora, Danny is a slightly too-eager-to-please Asta. Particularly funny is the in-universe explanation of why Luke doesn’t swear (a Marvel dictate) and his slightly unexpected minivan. There’s something deeply gratifying about seeing Power Man as the family man.
With Walker writing, this book would be strong enough to overcome a lot of artistic sins, but Sanford Greene has brought his A-game. He proved, in covers for Walker’s first run on Shaft and interiors for last summer’s Secret Wars: Runaways, that he’s got a kinetic and dynamic style with a lot of movement and strong character design. Combining his talents with Lee Loughridge’s colors and Clayton Cowles’ letters turns a strong book into an incredible one. Loughridge is at his best when allowed to play with texture and color palette, and here he’s given a chance to tinker with some retro themes while keeping the pages fresh and bright. It’s a great combination that makes this book a visual joy, on top of being balanced almost perfectly between plot, backstory, and humor. Besides one panel that appears it may have been flipped—unfortunately swapping word bubbles to the wrong character—this book is one of the strongest first issues that’s come out in a long time.
In the larger context of Marvel’s initiatives, Power Man And Iron Fist is doing a great job of moving things forward. It’s excellent enough to add anticipation to the already well-hyped Black Panther #1 coming out in a few weeks, and it’s a great jumping-on point for Netflix fans getting into comics because of the TV shows, or even comics fans returning to long-dormant characters to get a refresher while waiting for new episodes to arrive. Always part of one of the more socially concerned books on the shelves, Luke and Danny have already tackled some of the most broken elements of the American judicial system with nuance and sympathy, and we’re only on the first issue. The biggest problem with this book is that there’s weeks of waiting until the next one comes out. [Caitlin Rosberg]
A common refrain is that the works of Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino function doubly as fiction films and as reflexive criticism of film. They synthesize names, spaces, and iconography from other films to create an intertextual dialogue, overturning the formal conventions of the medium and furthering specific critical arguments. Rick Spears and James Callahan’s The Auteur: Sister Bambi (Oni Press) exists in much the same vein, and it’s as much an evaluation of President’s Day, The Auteur’s first story arc, as it is a narrative fiction. Here, debauched filmmaker Nathan T. Rex plunges deep into some Latin American jungle, turning to Nazi financiers to find his nunsploitation flick only to see things go completely off the rails.
In this instance, off the rails begins with a spoiled Aryan extortionist and comes to include King Kong’s castration, an exploitative sex reassignment surgery, and a zombie uprising. Recreating, and explicitly referencing, colonialist filmmaking like Cannibal Holocaust, Nathan continuously objectifies and fetishizes his black girlfriend, claims that his vaunted status as a white liberal satirist insulates him from trans-misogyny, and subordinates the natives of Skull Island. For much of the book, the characters cartoonishly enact much of the problematic behavior of the title’s first volume. The “Black people love Kool-Aid and fried chicken, right?” jokes wear thin with unsurprising rapidity, but the book’s provocation eventually hits an apotheosis and breaks itself.
Driven primarily by Nathan T. Rex’s unmediated id, the plot trudges along with ham-fisted provocation. President’s Day was endearing in its way, but it concluded in that Johnny Ryan mode unabated. Halfway through Sister Bambi, however, Spears and Callahan overturn the setup, and Rex finds himself finally facing consequences for his buffoonery. In President’s Day and the first half of Sister Bambi, Rex is presented as a cartoon—Callahan even mimicking famous comic strip styles when the scene calls for it—a literal exaggeration who grabs the tails of his speech balloons to float gently across a gorge. But there comes a point where Spears and Callahan turn on their heels, and Rex is transformed into a vessel. In this vessel, Spears and Callahan pour all the righteous vitriol aimed at the real-life Nathan T. Rexes: the cis-het white men who think their hatred of George W. Bush qualifies them to write black characters, absolves them of misogyny, and insulates them against accusations of homophobia.
Nathan is a kicked out of an airplane by his girlfriend (a black woman), punched in the face by his assistant (a trans man), and shot in the head by a shabbily dressed man who might be god. Spears and Callahan aren’t content to have this character derided; his punishment is made real. In a finale that cross-cuts between undrawn pages of script and a Duck Amuck-style feud between Nathan and god, Nathan simultaneously finds forgiveness and is redrawn as a penis and then erased (literally). Forgiveness comes from apology and repentance, death and erasure from continued egotism, and in these divergent conclusions the crux of The Auteur is laid bare. [Shea Hennum]
Few manga series have cast as long a shadow in the world of science fiction as Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes. Although comics is quite friendly to sci-fi, the medium doesn’t lend itself as naturally to the rigors of hard sci-fi as, say, planetary romance or psychedelic space fantasy. Planetes represents perhaps the most notable exception to this rule. There’s very little in the story that pushes beyond the realm of the plausible within the bounds of a contemporary understanding of space. Like recent hard(-ish) sci-fi blockbusters Gravity and The Martian, Planetes is focused not so much on the possibilities of space travel but the sometimes disheartening limitations thereof. Despite its influence, Planetes, which originally saw print in Japan from 1999 to 2004, has been out of print in English for a few years now. The series is back now, thanks to Dark Horse Comics (in a translation by Yuki Johnson). The first volume of its new omnibus series collects the first two books of the series in a handsome package, complete with the color pages Tokyopop left out the first time around.
Surviving in space is hard. The human body wasn’t designed to live in zero, or even reduced, gravity. There’s no air and no heat. Technology can’t easily circumvent these limitations. Accordingly, the main characters of Planetes are not grand explorers or noble scientists, but garbagemen, low-level astronauts tasked with clearing near-Earth orbit of trash. This is an important job, and a real problem that already exists. The vision of the near future offered in Planetes is decidedly blue-collar and proudly banal. You can’t easily smoke a cigarette in space, which isn’t a problem you ever see discussed in Star Trek.
Although Planetes begins as a series of character studies, presenting the crew of sanitation ship DS-12 hard at work, a larger plot gradually coheres over the course of the first half-dozen episodes. Mankind is preparing for its first journey into the outer solar system with a manned voyage to Jupiter. Journeyman astronaut Hachimaki dreams of leaving the DS-12 behind, but his ambition is complicated both from within and without, in the form not just of a potentially destabilizing mental illness but of the dawning realization of his feelings for rookie crew-member Tanabe. Meanwhile, environmental terrorists are committed to ensuring that humanity does not leave Earth.
The problem is that, in Planetes, the terrorists have a point: humanity has already made an ecological disaster of the Earth, and is almost certain to continue the pattern elsewhere. The purpose of the Jupiter mission is not, as in 2001, heroic exploration, but resource extraction. The book’s very premise belies any noble motivations: man has already filled Earth’s orbit with trash, and more resources will simply mean more waste. Yukimura’s art gives weight to the most quotidian details of life in the (not so far) future of 2074, from the cramped quarters of the DS-12 to the tragedy of a broken cigarette vending machine. When the story breaks into periodic action, Yukimura handles the shift with aplomb. Blowups happen, even in space. But Planetes leaves no doubt that the real danger lies not in a few explosions or gunfights but ambition, and the wasteful depletion of a few precious resources here on Earth. [Tim O’Neil]
The second series to debut as part of Archie Comics’ rebranding, Jughead (Archie Comics) has surpassed Mark Waid’s main Archie series as the best place to get modern Riverdale stories that maintain a retro Archie charm. Written by Chip Zdarsky with art by Erica Henderson, the series gleefully embraces the fanciful silliness of its title character, incorporating goofy genre-specific dream sequences into a story about Riverdale High being used as a secret agent training ground by the new Principal Stanger. After the first issue’s overt Game Of Thrones parody, Jughead’s dreams have become more general pastiches of genres like science-fiction, crime noir, and in the most recent Jughead #4, pirate adventure, allowing the creative team to play with genre conventions to switch up the storytelling style with every chapter.
Zdarsky has a much stronger handle on teen dialogue than Waid, and the banter is as fun as the more sensational story elements, largely because Henderson’s characters are so expressive. Henderson’s cartoonish visuals are rooted in the classic Archie aesthetic, but her design sensibility, particularly the fashion, has a modern bent that makes the book feel fresh while still showing reverence for what came before. Henderson regularly juggles superhero fantasy with raucous comedy and grounded character work on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and the skill she’s honed on that title add energy and personality to Zdarsky’s story.
Henderson’s work is especially impressive considering she’s also doing some exceptional coloring (her palettes for the dream sequences do great work evoking different moods) while still putting out Squirrel Girl on a monthly basis. She’s established herself as one of the most consistent and reliable artists in monthly comics, and her talent is only increasing as she puts out more and more material. It helps that she’s also been attached to projects that highlight her strengths, and there’s a sense of joy in her artwork that elevates each book she’s working on.
In Jughead #4, Zdarsky confirmed that Jughead identifies as asexual, a reveal that is casually delivered by Kevin Keller, Archie’s most prominent gay character, as he and Jughead walk through the school. Jughead comments that his asexuality is what allows him to think clearly about the school’s shady administration while fellow teens like his best friend Archie Andrews are blinded by a hormonal fog, but his sexual orientation is more than just a one-off joke. Having an established character come out as asexual is a big move for asexual representation, which is next to nil in monthly comics, and it also forces Jughead’s creative team to explore narrative avenues that break away from the high school teen romance formula. It will be very interesting to see if Jughead’s asexuality will carry over to The CW’s upcoming Riverdale series, but hopefully the TV show will take note of the progress being made with Jughead’s character in the comics (and maybe throw in a few fantasy sequences in the process). [Oliver Sava]