Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - Black Plague

Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2006
By: Keith Dallas

Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Julia Bax, Matt Webb (colors)

Publisher: Boom! Studios

Average Rating:

Michael Aronson:
Michael Deeley:
Egg Embry:
Charles Emmett:
Dave Wallace:

Michael Aronson

I debated about giving this book a lower score and felt bad about it. The truth is that there isn’t much that’s particularly bad about Black Plague at all. For an introduction to a new cast of characters with new rules and new powers, it’s perfectly decent. It also feels like any and everything else in the superhero genre and offers nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere before. The American comic book industry is already overcrowded with spandex-clad characters punching each other, and a new dime-a-dozen title with an unassuming humdrum start just isn’t good enough for any kind of recommendation anymore.

The story is framed by Washington Square Park chess match between two lowly once-super beings, Magneto and Profe- I’m sorry, I mean Martin, the White Knight, and Sidney, formerly the Black Plague. Yes, the book is named after the bad guy, a young man who, under the guidance of an aging Bruce Wayn- er, Sidney, will be the new Black Plague. See, Black Ada- that is, Black Plague is somewhat reformed and going under cover in order to see his noble goals to their end. Why we should care is another matter entirely.

The problem is, there’s no reason to care. Other than their analogues, the reader has no idea who these characters are, and the little done here to try to establish them is pretty flimsy. S.L.A.S.H. is an intelligence agency who occupy a large hovercraft above Earth’s atmosphere (guess who they’re modeled after) and the only defining traits of the soldiers is their ineptitude. Even though the new Black Plague is a rookie, he already has things well in hand and as such there isn’t much to like about the character beyond the costume (which isn’t that inspired anyway). Giffen and Dematteis have introduced their own new super character in Boom Studio’s Hero Squared, but despite the character’s similarity to more popular icons, the writing on the title is more unique. Too bad Casey doesn’t offer more than standard fare here.

Topping off the mediocrity is Bax’s art. While it’s perfectly good in its own right, it seems rather stale and generic on a superhero title. The action is stiff, the facial expressions are waxy and everything’s just too damn bright and shiny. I’m not looking for dark angst, but just a hint of a unique style. Photoshopping sky backgrounds doesn’t count.

Well, here it is: Black Plague. It’s a comic book. It’s got superheroes. It’s got Joe Casey writing as if it’s still his 1997 debut to comics. Enjoy.

Michael Deeley

I think there two Joe Casey’s. One is the original, genre-bending writer behind Wildcats 3.0 and Godland. The other is the mediocre superhero writer of Superman comics. Black Plague is the work of the latter, with a little of the former.

A retired supervillain is training a younger man to be the new Black Plague. The new Plague steals something being sold by a crime family to SLASH, the Science Liberation Army of Super Humanity. He seems to be an aspiring new supervillain, but he’s really working with the old Plague to dismantle the criminal underworld. It makes me wonder if the villain isn’t what he seems. Could SLASH and the retired superhero be hiding secrets as well?

I like how Casey writes SLASH’s dialogue as extremely formalized and stiff. They sound like arrogant scientists dedicated to taking over the world. I’d like to seem him write a comic with Marvel’s A.I.M. The comic is interesting to read. It’s interesting enough to make me wonder what happens next issue. But this isn’t as challenging as his earlier work. It’s a good superhero comic, but it’s just a superhero comic. I mean SLASH can’t even shoot straight! How old of a cliché is that? Julia Bax and Matt Webb do a good job with the art. It’s bright, clear, and easy to follow. Very reminiscent of 1990’s Malibu comics. But again, it’s not so different or unique from most other superhero comics.

So The Black Plague isn’t a bad comic. It’s just not a particularly great comic. But there’s enough of premise for the story to take a new turn down the road.

Egg Embry

Black Plague is a super villain. A bad guy with a plan. And it’s a twisted, complex agenda by all appearances. That subject forms the premise of this 22-page one-shot as well as setting up the Black Plague-verse for writer Joe Casey and artist Julia Bax to work in.

Casey and Bax, in a short space, have done a fun intro to their property. Not reinventing the wheel, clearly, just rounding it into a more perfect circle. That’s not an insult as I don’t think that they set out with such grandiose plans as engineering a product to replace the original cliché about an invention. Instead, they produced a sharp story that wastes no time with ill-defined characters or useless fights that are all flash yet do nothing to advance the plot. In a single issue we’re treated to “actors” that seem to have a nice bit of existence – no one-liners, all character-driven dialogue that the artist delivers with a conviction that adds definition. The story advances nicely as it shows us a world less like modern comics that are filled with evil and sexually malicious men in tights and instead swims in a more classic take of villains that are hunting for world domination. Broad based agendas versus personal acts that are too vile for me to want to deal with.

The background elements of universe that came out at me read as an odd combination of dark thoughts. Not angsty, just dark like comics of a bygone era:
Heroes seem, in this issue, to be supplanted by non-uniformed government agents while villains are organized into complex networks more so than individuals.
Possibly intentional (or easily coincidental) parallels exist between the structure of the villainous organizations and the government.
Villains are running around this world like it’s a 1980s Marvel comic.
No modern-day deconstruction.
Almost as homage, we’re taken back to villains bent on world domination and more “classic” intentions.
And one bad guy with a plan that trumps every other villain.

Julia Bax’s art compliments Joe Casey’s idea of classic villains. The production is not classic 80s Marvel house style art, but neither is it ultra-gritty, dark cross-hatching. For me, the work falls into a category a friend of mine dubbed “naturoon” [naturalistic + cartoon]. Or animated/cell-shaded. Take your pick. The penciled/inked art has a clear basis in proportion and reality without sacrificing the cartoon-ish ability to have characters visually express themselves. Bax does not over-exaggerate her characters (anymore so than a normal superhero comic) nor “cheat” on backgrounds. I never question who is who or where we are.

[For the coloring I should say that I am “working” from a pdf and that the final printed colors may come out lighter or darker depending on the printer or the ink used or the temperature or the alignment of the planets … you know, anything jimmies it.]

My only downward thought on the art is the inking and coloring as a team. Bax, to me, seemed to be reaching for an animated/cell-shade look with the pencils/inks. But the colorist did not cell-shade it.

The colorist, Matt Webb, really set out to show his chops and produce beautiful colors. As such, he rendered a good deal of the project. The coloring is clean and very bright with textures that make me think he did some heavy work on this. He added depth, style and character with his coloring… However, I feel that the depth draws us away from the simple cell-shading that would have complimented the chosen inking style. Since there are no deep shadows or heavy variance in the line weight with this issue the heavy rendering on the colors causes me to note the art more than I would have liked to.

Still, that is not to say that either Julia or Matt are bad artists. Clearly, they’re not. In fact, they’re good artists. And their work here is good… it is just lightly distracting when put together as I see their efforts at cross-purposes. Nevertheless, give me them over SOOO many other artists any day of the week because they are clearly trying on this!

As a package, I liked Black Plague. The concept of a villain stomping all in his path to achieve his goals is infectious like the title. Because I feel the creators are pouring themselves into this project and that effort makes me want to pick up the upcoming Black Plague mini-series. I think that the creative team has more than accomplished their job doing the work with a chic worth gobbling up! I look forward to reading more!

Egg Embry is a writer and editor who has worked on projects such as Ant and Dead@17.

Charles Emmett

As an old hero and villain play chess in the park, the same villain, the Black Plague, supposedly long retired steals a mysterious corpse that everyone seemingly wants to get their hands on, and by everyone I mean the guys in white (who I suppose are working for a company of some sort), the villain and his gang in suits, and the feds in body armor. Now that we have that straight, the rest of the comic goes…, well…, nowhere. At least not anywhere I understood. From a space station to a mafia mansion, this comic has a hard time trying to make sense with so few pages to cram the story into. Oh, and of course the old Black Plague is the mentor and boss of the new one.

Meh. That’s what this comic is: a very definite “meh.” I didn’t hate it, I really didn’t. But it was just like “okay, that was alright, what’s next and more interesting on my list?” It’s instantly forgettable. Fun for the ten minutes it takes you to read, but once you leave you don’t remember or care what you’re walking away from. At least I didn’t. I did like the whole sort of Batman Beyond twist at the end, though anyone who’s picked up a comic or a book or a movie ever saw that one coming. This comic was so forgettable, just now I actually forgot I was writing a review about it and played around
on the Internet for 20 minutes. I mean, how inspiring is that?

Even the art is uninspiring. It’s solid to be sure, but it doesn’t pop. And since there’s only one real action scene it’s hard to get any sort of idea of how this is going to translate to a mini-series or even an ongoing series, which is really the whole story with the whole book. I mean, how is a book like this supposed to get readers? It’s certainly not a new or terribly exciting idea. It’s solidly done but not extraordinary. The only thing I really like about the series is its name, which I picked randomly out of a list for exactly that reason. Though it isn’t medieval super heroes dealing with the ravages of an unseen assailant known as the Black Plague (how cool of a series would THAT have been!), it is good, but not good enough to stand out in a crowd of well established Superheroes and villains. That’s why this series will fail. Too bad, since it didn’t totally suck.

Dave Wallace:

The Black Plague was a completely unknown quantity to me before I read this issue, but I was intrigued by the solicitation which promised a one-shot villain comic with insights into gangster culture, “science terrorists,” as well as a more traditional capes’n’costumes vibe. However, whilst all those elements are present in this book, they don’t quite coalesce into a whole, leaving the story feeling quite bitty and incomplete. Kicking off with a showdown between various criminal factions involved in the trafficking of an imprisoned mystery character, things soon descend into violence with the arrival of the mysterious Black Plague, a super-villain with an unclear agenda but who clearly has an interest in the underworld activities that he disrupts. Veering from a three-way firefight to high-tech villains-in-space to F.B.I. action sequences as well as some more traditional mob drama, Joe Casey’s script keeps things moving enough that the book isn’t ever dull, but at the same time it never quite joins everything up in a satisfactory enough way to make the whole thing a compelling story - and veiled references to unexplained events occurring before the start of the issue don’t help to make things clear either. This issue doesn’t tell a story so much as suggest the possibility of one, and it suffers as a result.

However, I have to admit to being far more taken with the book’s visuals than I was with the script. Julia Bax’s artwork is attractive without being particularly ground-breaking or unconventional, conveying important story moments well and with a clear, crisp style which is easy to follow. The characters pop off the page thanks to Matt Webb’s sharp, bright colours, which also lend a lot of depth and solidity to the otherwise fairly flat linework. Whilst the book’s look is fairly cartoonish, with a lot of fairly thick lines and primary hues, there are some pretty brutal and violent scenes in there too. Things are also kept interesting by some inventive choices of angle and perspective, ensuring that the book never feels boring, even during the more talky scenes. That said, there are one or two moments that could have been handled better – and sadly one of those is the big entrance of Black Plague himself. The character descends from the sky in a stiff, undynamic pose which is saved only by the panels which directly precede and follow it, both of which capture the fearsome essence of the character far better than his big reveal. Despite this wobble though, the character does make quite an impact throughout the rest of the issue, and it’s largely due to the artwork. And Dave Johnson’s cool, retro cover (love the Benday dots) doesn’t go amiss either.

There are a fair number of interesting ideas to be found in this issue, but not all of them get a chance to be fully explored, suggesting that elements are being put in place for this title to develop as something more than the one-shot that it first appeared. Whilst that impression is confirmed by the book’s final page, it’s also something of a let down, because this issue feels like a glimpse of a bigger story that we haven’t really been let in on yet. In many ways, that’s a good thing, as I’m sure there’s a market for future issues of this book and it’s nice to know that the character’s universe is ripe for further exploration – but whereas a self-contained issue which introduced The Black Plague and his world could have really got people hooked, anyone on the fence about whether to buy into the character for his future miniseries might have hoped for a little more detail and story information in this first issue to ensure that they come back for more.

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