This summer both of the big two publishers are taking the opportunity to throw spaghetti at the wall and figure out what sticks and what they might be able to use in primary continuity. That’s the joy of having multiple universes collide all at once: They can rely on ideas old and new to attract readers and make decisions about what to print in the coming years. Convergence has been serving up a lot of pre-New 52 characters and relationships, relying on nostalgia to figure out where the pasta lands, but some books are reaching a lot further back than others. Though Shazam! (formerly Captain Marvel) has certainly gotten some page time in the New 52, Billy Batson and his merry band of Marvels haven’t seen much panel space in the past few decades, so the decision to give him his own book might seem a bit anomalous. Convergence: Shazam! #1 (DC) proves that the character is a powerful and compelling one in the right hands.
Evan “Doc” Shaner is the perfect artist for this foray into old-school comics. Fresh off the success of both Adventures Of Superman and Flash Gordon, Shaner has a clean, iconic style that feels hopeful and sweet without being cloying. Jordie Bellaire’s colors are incredibly well suited to Shaner’s lines, and the talented team up makes the entire book a visual joy to behold. The sunrise on the very first page sets the stage brilliantly and differentiates Fawcett City of Earth-S from all the other Earths we’ve seen so far in Convergence; this is not Gotham, nor is it Metropolis, but its own place in space and time, and the reader has to buy in to move forward. Shaner’s expression work serves the story particularly well, managing to impart emotional weight and heft to people who live in a world where suit-wearing tigers can talk and evil mad scientists are a real threat.
Writer Jeff Parker and Shaner already worked together on Flash Gordon and it’s easy to see that they’ve got this down to a science. As in so many retro books like Flash Gordon and the original Captain Marvel stories, there’s the overwhelming sense that the heroes in this story are good and righteous, that they genuinely care about one another, and because of that they’ll save the day. Nuanced and complicated it’s not, but with so many dark and gritty stories out there, so many antiheroes and villains turned good guys, it’s lovely to read something that’s unabashedly positive. Shazam! #1 is fun and lighthearted, but the threats still feel real.
The quick run-down of Shazam!’s history in the back pages of the issue is a reminder of what comics used to look like, over-the-top stories with bad guys that had swastikas on them so they were easy to pick out. Though there’s just barely a page hinting at the big conflict staged for #2, the fact that Billy Batson in all his optimism has to fight Gotham City from the Gaslight Universe to save his home and family is a stroke of genius. Gotham By Gaslight’s steampunk and Fawcett City’s neo-futurist idealism aren’t that far removed chronologically, but the tones and beliefs are diametrically opposed and the throwdown that’s about to go down promises to be big and beautiful. [Caitlin Rosberg]
At 76 pages, The Oven (AdHouse Books) is Sophie Goldstein’s longest comic to date, and prevalent with themes often found in her work: fertility, sustainability, notions of utopia, the feminine ideal, and more. Young couple Syd and Eric travel out of their protected, domed city to “The Oven,” a natural commune where people live technology and state/government-free lives, grow their own food, sew their own clothes, and generally live off the land. Syd and Eric want to have a baby, but the eugenic laws where they live prevent them from conceiving (Eric has acne), and so here they are. Their initial reaction to their new, rather run down and dilapidated surroundings is one of uncertainty, but they receive a warm welcome from the friendly people there and soon fall into a routine of farming and working.
The problem with utopias and ideals is that the chasm between concept, attainment, and actuality is regularly stark. An idea in the head, unformed, shimmers with promise and the sheen of imagination. Malleable, it can shift and change, and still be whatever you want it to be. But the execution—the process of birthing that idea—is messy and long, and what emerges isn’t necessarily what was envisaged. While Syd is more realistic about her expectations and what it will take, Eric struggles with the limited options in their new home and the realization that a clean, “free” life requires constant hard work. Dreams are easy to have. “I just want to finish already,” he says at one point as he digs. “There’s no finishing. You just move onto the next task.” Eric doesn’t want to work or struggle for an ideal he only superficially cared about in the first instance; he wants to be distracted from the shortcomings of the world, pacified by alternative means.
Goldstein depicts Eric’s growing dependency and addiction to the strange insect drugs incredibly vividly. Black spiky shapes trail and creep over the page, first obscuring one panel as they spiral into view, growing into a heavy curtain that engulfs everything all in blackness. Goldstein’s cartooning is traditionally bubblier when depicting people, but the flying plant insects are precisely detailed and sharp, providing them with an extra edge of menace. The earthy brown tone and orange palette is well chosen; the harshness of the oppressive heat scorching down, and adding pressure, testing resolve.
The ease with which Syd adapts is deceptive—the drastic switch in lifestyle and circumstance doesn’t necessarily come more naturally to her, but they’re here and invested and she’s determined to make the most of it. She’s committed to the change they’d both agreed to and works hard to get to know people, becoming involved with the day-to-day life. Eric’s self-imposed alienation stems equally from a form of emasculation as Syd grows more assured and accomplished in herself. She loves him and needs him emotionally, but he’s not as secure and unable to adjust and accept the change in their relationship and roles.
The Oven is another strong and complex entry into Goldstein’s oeuvre. [Zainab Akhtar]
Comics fans dissatisfied with Jonathan Hickman’s and Rick Remender’s respective runs on the main Avengers titles should be excited to hear that, at least in the case of the former, the end is nigh. With Hickman taking a leave from the company following Secret Wars, all eyes are on Marvel regarding the question of who will next take the reins of comics’ number one franchise.
Based on the evidence in the preview issue of Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Avengers released as part of the company’s offerings for last week’s Free Comic Book Day event, the books (at least one of them) will be in good hands. Mark Waid finds himself in the unique position of experiencing an extended second act in an industry notorious for discarding creators past “a certain age.” Although he never really went away, he was absent from the big two for a while (and presumably remains persona non grata at DC). He returned with a celebrated run on Marvel’s Daredevil that pulled off the neat trick of redefining the character after years of diminishing returns. It makes perfect sense for him to be spearheading what will almost certainly be one of, if not the, most high-profile launch to come out of the aforementioned Secret Wars.
Anyone sick of the sprawling, intentionally dehumanizing timbre of Hickman’s run—or for that matter the operatic grimness of Remender’s—should be pleased to hear that, based on the evidence of this preview, Waid’s book represents a complete tonal shift. The emphasis here is on new blood. Iron Man is still around (presumably still Tony Stark, although there are some open questions regarding his post SW-status quo), as is the Vision, fresh off his movie debut in Age Of Ultron. Sam Wilson will continue as Captain America. But the rest of the team is brand new: female Thor (although already teased as an Avenger in the Rage Of Ultron OGN) will be there, as will Nova (Sam Alexander), Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), and Spider-Man (Miles Morales). The young lineup is an acknowledgment that Marvel has done remarkably well with its recent attempts to introduce a next generation of “legacy” characters for the purposes of appealing to new or lapsed readers. (Ms. Marvel is officially Marvel’s best selling digital release, for instance, and as of this writing the female Thor book is still outselling the previous Thor run by a considerable margin.)
With all things Avengers still in the public eye for the time being, it makes sense that Marvel would use Free Comic Book Day to promote the next iteration of its core franchise. Mahmud Asrar delivers on the art front, with a fresh and ever-so-slightly cartoony style reminiscent of early Stuart Immonen. No word on whether he’ll be around when the book officially launches later this year, but he’s more than welcome. As exhausted as some of Marvel’s recent creative choices have seemed, All-New, All-Different Avengers promises a new start. Let’s see if they can make good when the book actually drops. [Tim O’Neil]
The current youth generation is glued to technology, but what happens when smartphones and social media are taken away and teens are forced to fend for themselves in a life-or-death situation? The new ongoing series No Mercy (Image) asks that question by sending a bus full of college students careening off a cliff during a pre-freshman trip to Central America, leaving them stranded in the deadly wilderness with no way to contact the outside world. The title is a strong indicator of the book’s tone, and the creative team doesn’t pull any punches, delivering a brutal survival horror narrative that is especially scary because it’s so plausible.
This isn’t a book about zombies or serial killers. This is about a car accident in a foreign country forcing a group of people to function without the luxuries they’ve become accustomed to at home, and they need to figure it out fast because their numbers are quickly dwindling. Writer Alex De Campi has come up with a chilling concept that is given a lot of gravitas by artist Carla Speed McNeil and colorist Jenn Manley Lee, whose visuals accentuate the drastic shift in the story as the teens go from plucky young college students to a damaged band of survivors. The start of the first issue is very bright, both in terms of characterizations and color palette, but once the bus crashes and the sun starts to go down, shadows become more prevalent, body language becomes more reserved, and the color palette deepens.
De Campi makes exceptional use of technology in the script for the first issue, filling the first pages with tweets and texts from the students as they situate themselves in a new environment. It reinforces how much of a role technology plays in the lives of these teens, so when the smartphones stop working and those tweets and texts disappear from the comic, the absence is more pronounced. The use of Facebook is especially effective; after the group poses for a picture, the next page shows a two-page splash of a Facebook page displaying the photo, which has 59,048 likes, 1,699 shares, and comments that foreshadow the tragic fate awaiting these optimistic young adults. That image immediately makes the cast come to life thanks to McNeil’s talent for nuanced character expressions, making it easy to gauge each person’s personality and level of enthusiasm.
This creative team understands the power of contrast. In the middle of the tense second issue, Tiffani sings an anime theme song to her potentially paralyzed friend Lily, which segues into a two-page splash of a pile of adorable toy kittens against a pastel background as a pink ribbon shows words like “safe,” “warm,” and “soft.” That cute, comforting visual is contained in a thought balloon on the immediately proceeding splash page, a devastating shot of Tiffani holding the limp Lily in her arms that snaps the reader back to the terrifying reality of this situation. It’s a fleeting moment of respite, but it’s extremely valuable to the narrative, which becomes especially merciless once the group’s fire dies down and the coyotes make their move. Nearly half of the group is dead by the end of the second issue, and the worst part is that the torture has barely begun. [Oliver Sava]