While Brenden Fletcher has proven his abilities on a slew of recent books, writing Batgirl with Cameron Stewart and Gotham Academy with Becky Cloonan, Black Canary #1 (DC) is his first full-length solo venture for DC. It’s easy to see why he’d get tapped for this project: Gotham Academy and Batgirl were both a big shift for the publisher, earning attention from fans and critics alike for striking out and doing something new. Fletcher and the rest of the Batgirl team—Stewart and artist Babs Tarr—got a lot of attention for the way they handled criticism when fans objected to the way villain Dagger Type was presented, going so far as to change the most problematic parts of the issue in the trade paperback. Fletcher understands the emotional investment readers have in beloved characters, knows that the audience for comics isn’t the stereotype people might assume it to be, and puts out great stories with fresh, new perspectives.
Perhaps it’s because he’s an artist himself, but Fletcher clearly has an knack for very visual storytelling. There are a few panels that have a lot of dialogue, but entire pages go with only a couple words spoken, and that physicality feels true to who Dinah is. It’s easy to forget that, beyond her killer pipes, Dinah’s got a lot of combat training and regularly kicks butt without relying on her superpower at all. She’s an impossible-to-ignorable physical presence on the page, both as the frontwoman for the up-and-coming band Black Canary and as a fighter.
Annie Wu showed the world all the way back in 2010 that she was ready for this job with her redesigned punk JLA, and her skills have only improved since then. The fight scenes in this issue alone are worth the price of admission, but Wu also delivers facial expressions that run the gamut of subtle to caricatured without any trouble. Heathcliff, tour manager for the band, is particularly fun to see on the page, as is drummer Byron. Dinah’s stage costume sticks close to her crime fighting uniform, but the feather-collared cape is absolutely inspired, and the similarity between Dinah’s moves onstage and when she fights showcases Wu’s talent. Lee Loughridge’s colors give the whole issue the feel of an old school zine, just as the first page of the issue lampoons. The colors are bright, sharp, and monochrome without losing visual interest and texture. This feels like a comic printed at Kinko’s and handed out at a show in a bar with no windows and a really sticky floor, which Dinah herself would probably approve of.
What’s really gratifying is that Dinah’s personality shines through from the very outset of the issue. Since the end of Birds Of Prey last year, she’s only had the occasional feature as a guest star, and she’s got more to give than that as a character. The entire issue focuses on Dinah’s desire to protect the people around her; this doesn’t mean that she’s gone soft or that she’s not focused on making enough money to rebuild the life she’s lost, but it’s clear that using her abilities to defend those who need it is central to who she is. Particularly in light of lack of history in Starfire #1, it’s good to see a new #1 that really is starting fresh and growing in a new direction while letting the audience know the roots are firmly planted. [Caitlin Rosberg]
The Secret Wars have been raging for a little over a month, and the shape of the battlefield begins to take shape. While many bemoan the crossover’s inescapability—every title either canceled or interrupted to make way for the event—there are more than a few books worth reading, even for fans anxious to dismiss the whole exercise on principle.
Squadron Sinister #1 (Marvel) is one such book. Marc Guggenheim and Carlos Pacheco are both superhero fans of the old school. As such, while many Battleworld books feature scrambled and unfamiliar version of old friends, Squadron Sinister offers a recognizable and diverse variety of characters from across the last 50 years of Marvel history. As you might expect from continuity aficionados like Guggenheim and Pacheco (collaborator with Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern on the continuity mash-note Avengers Forever), these are some pretty deep cuts: This represents the first appearance of Archie Goodwin’s Shadowline characters in 25 years, and the first appearance of the old-school New Universe (not to be confused with Warren Ellis’ newuniversal) characters in 21. J. Michael Straczynski’s refurbished Squadron Supreme from Supreme Power also appear, briefly, moments before being slaughtered en masse.
The Squadron Sinister is one of the more complex properties in Marvel’s history. Originally appearing in 1969 as villains in the pages of The Avengers, the Squadron is composed of wink-wink analogues of DC’s Justice League: Hyperion for Superman, Nighthawk for Batman, etc. Adding to the fun, it was soon revealed that the Squadron Sinister was actually created as a copy of the Squadron Supreme, an other-dimensional team of heroes more in line with their Distinguished Competition counterparts.
Although the Squadron Supreme was featured in a handful of memorable stories, it could easily have faded into the semi-obscurity of many Bronze Age super-teams—were it not for the intervention of Mark Gruenwald. He resurrected the characters in 1985 for a 12-issue maxi-series designed as a thought experiment, essentially a “what if” dedicated to exploring the consequences of the Justice League trying to save the world by taking it over and transforming it into a utopia by force. The series remains a highlight from the same decade that saw the advent of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and its reputation means that the characters have never been completely forgotten in the intervening years.
Squadron Sinister nods to Gruenwald’s seminal series, if through a glass darkly. The Squadron here is dedicated to assembling a dystopia, annexing nearby regions of Battleworld to expand their territory, a practice justifiable to Doom and his army of Thors only through the legal fiction of self-defense. The Squadron massacres Straczynski’s Nu-Squadron, demolishes Doctor Zero and his Knights of St. George, and appear on a collision course with the heroes of the New U. Given the general underpowered nature of the naturalistic New Universe characters, this might appear to be a lopsided match—save for the fact that they have a Star Brand, one of the most powerful weapons in any universe. Given Gruenwald’s close association with the New Universe as well, this series serves a fitting tribute to one of the Marvel Universe’s most vital latter-day architects. [Tim O’Neil]
Marvel’s Secret Wars success continues with E Is For Extinction (Marvel), a return to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men that channels the big ideas and dark humor that defined so much of Morrison’s work on the characters. Morrison evolved the X-Men when he wrote the team in the early ’00s, exploring mutantkind as a larger cultural force in the Marvel Universe and introducing a cast of characters that drifted far from the superhero supermodel standard for the mutant team. Morrison’s run had its problems, especially in the final year, but by and large it was an exciting, imaginative, and sophisticated take on one of Marvel’s most popular properties, and the creative team for E Is For Extinction shows a lot of respect for Morrison’s work.
That reverence makes sense considering the miniseries is co-written by Chris Burnham, who has worked with Morrison as an artist on Batman Incorporated and the current Image horror series Nameless. E Is For Extinction #1 credits Dennis Culver with a “special thanks” but publicity materials name him as co-writer with Burnham, and these two creators primarily known for their art do exceptional work together as a writing team. Their approach isn’t quite as serious as Morrison’s, though, despite this first issue beginning with a scene where Professor X blows his brains out to prevent his sister Cassandra Nova from committing mutant genocide. That’s where the story of Battleworld’s Mutopia diverges from the path of Morrison’s run, and without Professor X, a new generation of X-Men arises under the guidance of Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest frenemy.
The adjective “New” was added to the X-Men title when Morrison took over, and this Secret Wars tie-in wonders what could have been if Morrison’s direction became the long-term X-Men status quo instead of being largely ignored by later creators. Beak, Angel, and Quentin Quire are the cool young heroes while Cyclops, White Queen, and Wolverine are getting older, fatter, and weaker, and much of the book’s comedy stems from the new X-Men constantly poking fun at the age of their predecessors. Ramon Villalobos is one of many contemporary artists (including Burnham) whose work is significantly influenced by Morrison’s New X-Men collaborator Frank Quitely, and his detailed linework and trendy character designs make him a perfect fit for this title. Colorist Ian Herring draws attention to the texture of Villalobos’ art with a bright color palette that isn’t overly rendered, and his use of neons gives the book a different visual flavor from the more realistic coloring on New X-Men.
Morrison is a writer with big ideas, but those big ideas are rarely explored by the creators that take over his titles. E Is For Extinction imagines what could have happened if Marvel decided to keep the mutant population growing instead of wiping out the majority of mutants and keeping the popular ones, and the result is one of the most thrilling X-Men stories in recent memory. It’s clever and weird and not always pretty, and ideally Marvel will find a way to incorporate more elements of Morrison’s run into the future of the X-Men because it was the last time the concept felt like it was truly evolving. [Oliver Sava]
Tomer Hanuka and Asaf Hanuka make a return to long-form comics with one of the year’s most anticipated new books, The Divine (First Second), produced in collaboration with writer Boaz Lavie. Former military man Mark finds his civilian life interrupted when Jason, an old army friend, persuades him to take on a covert, lucrative contract in civil-war ridden Quanlom. With a baby on the way, and he and his wife desperate to move out of the state, a reluctant Mark agrees to undertake the operation in the obscure South Asian country. But the job turns out be far from simple in ways beyond the realms of Mark’s anxieties, as his decision to leave his team and help an apparently injured young boy back to his home has drastic, unforeseen consequences. Finding himself held hostage by a group of child soldiers leading an indigenous resistance movement against the military junta, Mark agrees to accompany them to disarm the bomb he helped put in place.
Unsurprisingly, what lifts The Divine into outstanding territory is the Hanukas’ mastery of their craft. Digital art can so often look unintuitive and cold, but here the Hanukas evoke a sense of reverie and beauty into which these soldiers step. Fine, swooping lines provide clarity, controlled without being tight. As ever, it’s the stylistic use of color that lends a distinctive, impressive edge. Rich, bright colors sit side by side with more muted pastels, the vibrancy and juxtaposition of the hues presenting a constant focus, like a sudden, single panel of orange background, spongy dots of green for trees, and twisted blue tree trunks. The Hanukas eschew black, instead using purples and reds for texture and shade on the flesh of a spit-roasting pig. Sunlight filters speckled mustard dappled on green in a forest. Pink moss pools over rocks. There is superior gloss and sheen, but it’s not without emotion. Each page is individually stunning.
Luke and Thomas, the strangely charismatic and purportedly superpowered 9-year-old twins leading the rebel group, portray a skewered inversion of the Peter Pan fantasy. These young boys hiding in the jungle with their swords and knives, wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts while smoking cigarettes and tossing grenades, have had death and war and suffering force them to grow up before their time.
The Divine is a rumination on the the nature and power of belief as much as it is an exploration on the non-choices and consequences of war. How innocent are these children? What circumstances have led them to this point? Are their beliefs superstition or indoctrination that they accept having been born into a war-ravaged landscape, or are they stories they tell themselves in order to cope and make sense of it somehow? What of Mark and Jason? Is there a more acceptable face of foreign invasion? Mark is a grossly naive “good soldier,” trotting out the “just doing our job, that’s all” defense, while Jason makes no pretense in holding anything close to moralistic qualms. There are few answers to be gleaned in the questioning of truths and perspectives and the lack of absolutes, but amid the complexities and distortions one thing is apparent: No one emerges unscathed. [Zainab Akhtar]