Judging a comic by a first issue is a lot like trying to predict the arc of a TV show based solely on the pilot. Reviewing a #1 feels premature and maybe even unfair, even when the character appeared previously, as is the case with Silk #1 (Marvel). Though Silk was introduced in last year’s Spider-Verse event, it’s not necessary to know anything about Spider-Verse or the history of the title character in order to start with Silk #1, proving that writer Robbie Thompson knows his craft very well. It can be hard to walk the fine line between explaining enough to give new readers a hook without boring hard-core fans.

Thompson’s only previous work at Marvel has been in the Spider-Verse sandbox, so he would have been forgiven if he hadn’t hit his stride so gracefully, though he did work on the comic tie-in for Human Target as well as the TV show of the same name, not to mention the fandom juggernaut Supernatural. Silk does suffer from the unfortunate sidekick book phenomenon of guest appearances by big names that frankly aren’t necessary. While some bullying from J. Jonah Jameson results in Silk landing in the odd role of superhero to Spider-Man’s vigilante criminal, conversations between Cindy and Peter feel dull and awkward.

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Cindy is dynamic even while struggling with her powers and sense of self, while Peter feels like the guy who hasn’t realized everyone left the party three hours ago and is still sipping his beer on the couch. This is further complicated by the fact that Cindy’s new job is at Peter’s stomping grounds at The Daily Bugle. She even spends several panels correcting herself to say “Silk-sense” instead of “Spidey-sense,” and it’s strange to have Peter intruding so much when she’s wrestling with her identity.

Thankfully, Cindy gets some consistency due to the skill of artist Stacy Lee, who is relatively new to Marvel. Expressions are soft and human, and posture looks not only realistic but also comfortable, particularly important for female superheroes. That doesn’t mean that action sequences lag behind; Lee’s got a deft hand for movement that makes Cindy look like she’s got gymnastics training and some serious muscle.

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Because of similarities in both tone and artistic style, Silk may suffer a bit in comparison to the new Batgirl, perhaps because Batgirl is more established with a more experienced creative team. But Silk feels both refreshingly new as well as familiar and fan-focused, which makes sense given Thompson’s work on Supernatural (especially the episode “Fan Fiction”). More than anything, though, it’s a relief to have someone other than Dan Slott writing a Marvel 616 Spider-book, particularly someone with a great sense of humor and style. Silk #1 is a fun, introspective book starring a woman of color, a rare enough thing in any medium but especially in comics. Hopefully she survives this summer’s Secret Wars, because Cindy’s journey is one worth taking with her. [Caitlin Rosberg]

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Few themes are more flattering to artists than creativity. And this is not a new theme for Scott McCloud, whose signature work—1993’s Understanding Comics—was as much a paean to the act of creation as it was a detailed analysis of comics form. But just as the theme itself represents a dangerous temptation, the hazards are disproportionately severe. The value of art is the one subject on which artists can never be expected to speak honestly.

Stories about art often run in familiar grooves. Young artists are frustrated because their obvious talents go unappreciated, overlooked in favor of insincere scenesters and con artists. A disillusioned journeyman encounters an impossibly endearing young woman to serve as his muse. After much heartache and perspiration, he finally overcomes the indifference of the market to produce work of such honesty and timeless craft that it overcomes the natural skepticism not just of the art world, but the world at large.

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That’s the plot of McCloud’s The Sculptor (First Second).

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Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of McCloud’s new graphic novel is the way in which it so enthusiastically runs to embrace the most grisly clichés of the contemporary Künstlerroman, or “artist’s novel,” without even a passing acknowledgement of the sheer banality at the heart of the form. Perhaps not coincidentally, The Sculptor hits shelves simultaneous with the ascension of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman to the pinnacle of popular acclaim. Just as in Iñárritu’s film, critics in The Sculptor are creatures of pure evil, whose insight can always be reduced to either resentment or academic peevishness. Art, no matter how naive or unrefined, should never be appreciated on any level outside of the purely affective, as a reflection of the sincere intentions of performer and producer. A’s for effort all around.

Of course, Jeff Koons comes in for a drubbing at McCloud’s hands. McCloud’s art world represents nothing more than a beehive of nihilism and raw commerce. (Never mind that the actual details of the art world McCloud seem to be describing appear to have changed not one whit since the ’80s.) Who wouldn’t want David Smith’s completely derivative—not to mention just plain ugly—granite-hewn surrealism and po-faced emotionalism next to one of Koons’ genuinely striking and unsettling metal sculptures? Koons uses studio assistants, did you know that? McCloud would like to remind you that his hands are unsullied by the demands of real craft.

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There is, in case you were curious, real craft on display here. McCloud conjures every ounce of the formidable skill and knowledge at his disposal over the course of these 500 or so pages, but in service of what? There’s a manic pixie dream girl who works as a bike messenger and refuses to take psychiatric medication because she wants to feel everything. A few fantasy bits are cribbed from a photocopy of Neil Gaiman’s plumber’s cousin’s Sandman fan-fic. There’s even an angry Russian landlord with mob connections. Is there a word for when talented artists succeed in proving to the world in the most embarrassing and sincere way possible that they have absolutely nothing left to say? [Tim O’Neil]

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Archie Comics isn’t known for its originality, typically leaning in a more classic, timeless direction for its stories. Titles like Afterlife With Archie and Sabrina The Teenage Witch (where’s the second issue of that book?) offer different takes on familiar Archie characters, but when it comes to horror stories, those series don’t think very far outside the box. The recently concluded Life With Archie was an exception, a comic that experimented with narrative structure to stand out from the rest of the line, but it also stayed well within the visual tradition established by previous Archie artists. The publisher has been exploring a greater range of genres, but even then, it’s still offering stories that will be immediately recognizable to fans of those genres.

As part of the continuing diversification of the Archie brand, the publisher is devoting more attention to its Dark Circle imprint of superhero comics, launching three series over the next three months. The Black Hood #1 (Archie/Dark Circle) is the first, and while it’s definitely a departure for Archie with its profane language and photo-realistic visuals, it’s very much a standard gritty superhero tale. Writer Duane Swierczynski comes from a background in crime novels (both fiction and non-fiction), and his script for this first issue is a checklist of conventional crime elements: Hard-boiled, occasionally overwrought narration? Check. Bleak urban environment? Check. Scarred, tortured antihero? Check. Cop that decides to take justice into his own hands? Check.

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Swierczynski knows his way around these genre conventions and understands how to put them together in an engaging story, but it’s hard to ignore the sense of déjà vu. After interrupting a shoot-out between three gunmen and Philadelphia’s masked vigilante The Black Hood, handsome police officer Greg Hettinger suffers significant facial scarring that sends him spiraling into an acute identity crisis, inspiring him to embrace the vigilante lifestyle of the man he gunned down. The story hits a lot of familiar beats for anyone who has read a grim and gritty superhero comic in the last 30 years, but for readers that want their vigilantes dark and mentally unstable, The Black Hood will thoroughly scratch that itch.

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Artist Michael Gaydos and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick create a shadowy atmosphere for Swierczynski’s story, reflecting Greg’s increasingly bleak mental state in the visuals. Gaydos relies on photographic backgrounds to highlight the Philadelphia setting, and they blend smoothly with his realistic, textured linework. One of the most effective sequences of this first issue is the unraveling of Greg’s facial bandages, a page composed of three horizontal panels that combine to create the image of Greg’s face, but don’t exactly line up. It’s a subtle visual indicator of how the scarring has fractured Greg’s identity; he’s still the man he used to be, but the pieces don’t quite fit together anymore. [Oliver Sava]

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Aleks Sennwald is best-known for illustrating one of the overlooked and unadulterated comic highlights of 2014: The Short Con. Written by Pete Toms and serialized online at Study Group Comics, Sennwald’s fine, expressive lines and attuned sense of color imbued the tale of an underground children’s police force and its irascible homicide detective with enough warmth, personality, and interest to save it not only from being mired in a potential cluster of contrived quirk, but elevating it to another degree of excellence entirely. Her latest effort, Steepest Descent (Ray Ray Books), marks her most significant entry to date in terms of Sennwald as a solo author.

An open, less-overt narrative, the first half of Steepest Descent is conventional enough; establishing a mother and her teen/young adult daughter who appear to be leading a secluded existence out in the desert, their home a large cave filled with a vast jumble of computers and machines. The immediate inferences from this setup indicate that the women have removed themselves from society due to some event—fear/danger/ostracizing—and the presence and semi-sentience of the machines is of consequence, even as their purpose is unclear. A routine trip to the store in town for supplies sees the women leered at by a couple of men, who follow them and return at night to steal their computers, causing the cave to crumble and fall in.

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As Sennwald steers the tale from the purportedly straightforward to veer a sharp right, it’s clear that this is a world hostile and indifferent to women. Women, who aren’t safe from the gazes of men and the creeping tentacles of misogyny despite withdrawing from society. Patriarchy and the stymieing of women in science and technological fields remains an ever-current parallel (hello, GamerGate): These women are creating and using their own technology, only to have it forcibly removed by men, who wish to control both it and them. The men are directly responsible for the situation and yet escape without repercussion; the women don’t. It takes wiping out the whole world—as their consciousness transfers and merges with the machines, rising into a shimmering ectoplasmic being that silently blinks out the Earth—to be noticed, by which time it’s too late for everyone, as it was for them.

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Sennwald has a fine line, the type that lends itself to humor and expression well, here used to more restrained, tense effect. The ochre puddles evoke the dry heat of the desert, while the blue and white present a cleaner contrast. She manipulates saturation and shade to set tone and pace: a flashback has a lighter, hazier, happier-days feel, then bringing out pinks, purples, dots of yellow, and turquoise as events heighten.

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An early prophetic vision of the daughter looking at a picture of a horse, her seated figure dwarfing mountains and plants, foreshadows what’s to come. At the store she sees a horse postcard and buys it, before horses again appear multiplied as the women’s consciousness alters, fluctuates: a Jungian force mastered, harnessing and controlling the force of the machines, of technology, of all. [Zainab Akhtar]