Singles Going Steady is Comics Bulletin's weekly single issue review roundup. We're back, baby!
Baltimore: The Infernal Train #1
(Mike Mignola/Christopher Golden/Ben Stenbeck/Dave Stewart; Dark Horse Comics)
I dearly love Baltimore. For dark, grim horror in the Poe-vein Baltimore simply can’t be beat. As much as I love HP Lovecraft, his dominance of comic book horror has become all-consuming; it is hard to find anything without a creeping tentacle or shadowy cosmic horror. Baltimore gives me my fix of that OTHER type of horror—blunt and brutal, a world of rock and hard Earth where the stars never align and the greatest monsters are the human beings themselves.
In Baltimore: The Infernal Train the dystopian hero Lord Henry Baltimore travels to Budapest, Hungary to keep an appointment with the Inquisitor Judge Duvic. This is the classic motif of “confrontation,” something that must happen in the Jean val Jean/Javer dynamic that is Baltimore and Duvic. Knowing he is being hunted, Baltimore simply turns and waits. But forces gather around Baltimore that are far beyond his control—he is at the eye of a continually shifting hurricane that leaves blood and death in its path.
I think The Infernal Train is a turning point for this series. In the letters column Scott Allie promises that this is the story that will bring Baltimore full circle (which I hope he does not mean towards the end!) For the first time, Lord Baltimore is turning from his pursuit of the vampire Haigus—he is putting aside his single-minded drive for revenge to confront his human enemy. We also get a glimpse of something new, a vampire council controlling the lesser vampires. They have some purpose, some bigger game to play that goes beyond the personal dual of Lord Baltimore and Haigus. Lots of big stuff brewing up here. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
There are many perfect moments in Baltimore: The Infernal Train. The scene where Lord Baltimore happens across revelers in the streets was brilliant. Throughout history people have tried to dance off the apocalypse, from the Ghost Dance of the Native Americans to the Ee Ja Nai Ka? (Isn’t it Great?) dance hysteria that gripped Japan during the Edo period. These little touches of bizarre reality ground Baltimore into the real world and make it all the more unsettling. The dialog is also wonderful. I’m not sure who does the dialog, Mignola or Golden (although I suspect Golden) but the words on the page are as grim as the story and delivered like a hammer. “I’m going to need more than a sword to kill them all”
Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart are an art team perfectly in synch. I’ve spent time in Budapest, so it was great to see how perfectly Stenbeck captured the city, with the wide river that flows through separating Buda from Pest. Stenbeck captures the period and feel of Place perfectly, and he is equally fluent with figures and facial expressions. Some of Stenbeck’s choices surprise me—he stays heavy on realism but then has a guard pull a Billy Batson face out of nowhere. That was cool. And of course the King of Colors Dave Stewart paints the world of Baltimore in all the dark tones and muted palate that a land like this deserves. The sun rarely shines in Baltimore, and the only light comes from the fires of the corpse-burning furnace and the blood-red glow of the vampires’ eyes.
I wouldn’t want to live in Baltimore’s world, but I sure as hell love to read about it. I can’t wait to see where The Infernal Train takes me.
– Zack Davisson
The Star Wars #1
(George Lucas, J.W. Rinzler, Mike Mayhew, Rain Beredo; Dark Horse)
Adapted from George Lucas's original 1974 rough-draft screenplay for what would eventually become the world-changing pseudo-masterpiece Star Wars, Dark Horse gives us a glimpse of what could have been with The Star Wars. This 8-issue series is scripted by LucasBooks executive editor J.W. Rinzler with beautiful photo-realistic art by Mike Mayhew. And if you can shelve your middle-aged cynicism and get in touch with the idealistic fan of space adventure that Star Wars brain-tapped this is a very interesting look at the world Lucas was imagining just after finishing THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973).
There are some well-known names and scenarios introduced in this first issue, although none of them match up with what we're familiar with. This is still a galaxy where the Jedi are thought extinct, hunted down by the Empire and rival warriors, The Knights of Sith, but there's no active rebellion going on and the only Jedi around are aging General Luke Skywalker, the equally-aged Ka
ne Starkiller, and his Jedi-in-training son Annikin. Skywalker is leading the defense of the last holdout against the Empire's galaxy-wide domination, the Aquilaean System, which is about to come under attack by something strange and big.
Asteroid big (if you know what I mean).
The attack on the Aquilaean System is orchestrated by Governor Hoedaack with his right hand man Darth Vader. In this early draft, though, Vader is not the robotic deadbeat dad we all know and love. In fact, it's Annikin's father Kane who is mostly robotic. And it looks like General Skywalker will be taking on the familiar Obi-Wan role, continuing young Annikin's training as the story progresses.
The Star Wars is all about George Lucas aiming for the bleachers. It's filled with ideas and visions that would have been virtually impossible to put on film in the mid-Seventies. There just wasn't the technology to bring this thing to life. Hell, Lucas himself had to develop the technologies that would eventually bring life to what this idea eventually morphed into, but the upper limits of the tech required to tell this story wouldn't be available until the advent of CGI. Be warned; there are ideas in here that crept into the Prequel Trilogy, but they have an energy that the original Star Wars was able to tap into like none of Lucas' other ventures.
This is a very intriguing start, not only because it's a nice first chapter to what appears to be a rousing space adventure, but because it also provides a valuable insight into the creative process. I assume that by the time this is over, we'll get a good idea how Lucas' ideas solidified and how the marketplace affected later drafts.
-Paul Brian McCoy
Reality Check #1
(Glen Brunswick/Viktor Bogdonavic)
Willard Penn is a 26-year-old comic book writer and artist, just like the guys who you see at conventions and hang out with online. Willard is a bit of a loser as we meet him – he lives alone in a small apartment in L.A. A chance encounter with a pretty woman at at Starbucks ends up badly, with our lead punched across his chubby boylike cheek after that reads his sketch that has a note that declares that he wants to "lay down my life for a momentary smidgen of carnal knowledge with her." But our hero has secrets, a dark backstory and an even darker alter ego who suddenly, somehow, magically comes alive in the real world.
Yeah, this is all a little bit of Mary Sue from writer Glen Brunswick, but this is still a comic that's entertaining and fun despite its obvious flaws. Part of the reason Reality Check works is because Brunswick gives depth to Penn's world, taking the time to give him an interesting backstory of love and loss and real pain, mixed with some wonderful deep insight into the comic industry. The most fun parts of this book work as a cute little satire of comics, with a clever depiction of what it means to be hot in the industry and characters that are obviously meant to invoke real people. And when the big plot twist happens at the end of the issue, it feels cleverly set up and intriguing.
Viktor Bogdonavic's artwork on this book is very professional but seldom really shines. His artwork feels rather generic and cold, pushing the reader away from the comic rather than really involving them in the story. One of the key moments of the story, the death of a main character, is portrayed in such a stereotypical way that it bored me rather than making me emotionally involved with it.
Reality Check is a very generic comic – fairly clever, with a pretty clever story and decent enough art. This comic could have been better than it was, but it's just fine. It's not great, it's not horrible, it's pretty much meh.
– Jason Sacks
Avengers A.I. #3
(Sam Humphries/André Lima Araújo/Frank D’Armata/Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics)
After the first two issue standards of team-building and threat-establishing, Sam Humphries takes some time to check in on the team as they pick up the wreckage from last issue's Sentinel attack/existential crisis. Humphries gives us some cute banter, some disagreements about what the next move should be, and some casual anti-Robot sentiment. It's all pretty entertaining, and some of it is pretty funny too, but it also feels like standard plot progression, sticking to a pretty specific agenda.
However, the bulk of this issue is where Humphries's script really shines as he introduces us to the core idea of the series via The Vision exploring "The Diamond," a digital Utopia for all the new artificial intelligences that have spawned from Hank Pym's self-replicating virus intelligence that he used to beat Ultron. Pym should really consider laying off the robot stuff, seeing as how it only seems to create Ultron-level problems at worst, Jocasta-type romantic misadventures at best. Maybe Pym should just stick to Pym particles and call it a day. No harm could possibly come from Pym Particles.
The idea of a society of A.I.s living their own separate lives away from humanity has a lot of potential for future stories, and Andre Araújo seems to be having a lot of fun drawing it. The residents of The Diamond have moved past their attachment to human forms, which allows Araújo to flex his sci-fi muscles and create some alien life. He's channeling some Moebius, and I think I recognize some Otomo in his faces, but I think he could go a bit wilder with the designs.
For the most part, the character designs seem like fairly familiar sci-fi looks. We've got the usual third-eyes, extra appendages, maybe some exaggerated facial thing, etc., but what's most exciting to me ar
e the A.I.s who've moved past the humanoid template and are looking like glowing green crystals. I hope we get to see more of that element of the weird and strange from Araújo. He is a capable artist with a look that seems pretty atypical of the current major Avenger titles. It works well with Sam Humphries's sense of humor and it gives Avengers A.I. the feel of a fun, offbeat Marvel book.
(Ed Brisson, Johnnie Christmas, Shari Chankhamma; Image)
Sheltered #3 proves when there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. The stakes rise higher and the screws get tighter as artist Johnnie Christmas, colorist Shari Chankhamma and writer Ed Brisson continue to take a 'slow match' approach to one of the year's most incendiary comics.
If you've been living under a rock, Sheltered tells the story of (what's left of) Safe Haven, a survivalist enclave. After stockpiling and digging in in preparation for the end times, each and every adult is murdered … by their own children. Yep. The Isaac of these 'children of the pre-apocalypse' is Lucas. His opposite number is Victoria. She and her friend Hailey are away from the compound (and apparently) the only two unaware of Lucas's plan when the guns were drawn.
Lucas's charisma has carried the day, but not everyone on 'team Lucas' is … well, well — parenticide leaves a mark. Victoria and Hailey have holed up in a bunker and although Lucas has the numbers, Hailey and Victoria have … Victoria. Sheltered #3 marks the first battle in the war between the two sides.
Christmas is a forced-perspective samurai. Victoria's gun is drawn, but never fired; it's a weapon of intimidation not incrimination. Christmas foregrounds the weapon — a hand cannon ready to go off – to show the threat of violence, not the act itself, not yet anyway. Victoria is the last in line and Christmas makes sure she's oversized even though she's outmatched.
Something is always burning in Sheltered, evidence, corpses, or emotions and Chankhamma captures it in pumpkin and persimmon. These shades of orange appear as blocks of color to background extreme furies like when Lucas explains to Victoria why the adults had to die or when some of the younger conspirators refuse to toe the line. Chankhamma brings the fire to Sheltered's creatives.
Brisson's spare approach to storytelling borders on McCarthy-esque. The reader receives only what is needed and nothing more. Hailey and Victoria's story of survival nests inside (is sheltered by) the overarching narrative about the survivors of a survivalist compound; it's a smart move by Brisson and adds depth and scale to an otherwise small canvas. I suspect this nesting instinct to expand to other characters until morale improves which should occur the first of never.
– Keith Silva
Satellite Sam #3
(Matt Fraction, Howard Chaykin; Image Comics)
Satellite Sam is the comic-book equivalent to Paul Thomas Anderson making Network. With a dash of Nashville, to taste, right? We're all agreed on this?
If you're a regular reader of sequential art then you know who Matt Fraction is and if you know who Matt Fraction is you've heard of Howard Chaykin and all the stories are true as these two responsible individually for some of the greatest stories of the medium are combining like a hyperliterate Voltron force to create one of the most crackling and challenging comics these days.
We're on the third issue but here's the quick run down: Carlyle White, the titular Satellite Sam, is dead as fuck and everybody has a reason why. His alcoholic son who hated his guts is now forced to literally live in his father's shadow by taking his role and also be the only one who gives a shit what happened. Carlyle White was a sonofabitch, and it seems for as much as he reminded everyone of that as regularly as possible, he hid a lot more, including a roughed soft spot for some of his partners. Each issue has had Michael White discover a little more of his father's proclivities and we get just a little more of the old man himself, in this issue in particular we go through a tequila-washed night in Mexico with a girl who meant more to him than he'd ever tell anyone.
Fraction and Chaykin have teased a nerve with previous allusions to Carlyle and brief glimpses, but this time they leave thatr sucker exposed. We see him at his tenderest and at his most terrible and it's a sublime and hazy grey as encompassing and welcoming as Chaykin's shading and inking- the cigarette smoke and boner-inducing lounge jazz is palpable. Fraction's writing is still as acidic and witty as ever, and the front page “dad-captions” he produces every issue are inspired and informative, but Howard Chaykin runs away with this. Yeah yeah he can't draw faces neither can you fuck you but yes he can (peace to Tucker Stone)- his clean yet meaty style fits unto the Buster Crabbe-esque Carlyle White like black lace or latex. Chaykin has a gift for subtle expression as well, and we learn as much from the concerned gaze to an operating table and the suggestive look of a bored-by-it-all housewife as we could from pages of their thoughts written out.
It's a hard sell, although it shouldn't be. A black-and-white comic with risque themes and content a
imed at adults published outside of Big Two should be the biggest thing poppin', but the important thing is that for those of us who read it, it's what we wanted and hoped and more. Satellite Sam shimmies and pops off the page with all the danger and the excitement of the live TV (and the shitty signal to match) it emulates.
– Rafael Gaitan
(Bryce Carlson, Venesa R. Del Rey; BOOM! Studios)
Hit #1 is a gritty period piece set in Los Angeles of the 1950s. It has good action beats, with art that is distinctive in both the pencils and the colour. The book provides an interesting story, which is a unique twist on the traditional "we have a secret squad of cops that no one knows about". It appears to have all the hallmarks of a great book, but there are a few items that get in the way of making it a great read.
First, the secret squad of cops is actually a hit squad. They are a group who go around levelling justice on organised crime that manage to slip the noose of the law. That, in itself, could be very interesting. However, when it is revealed that this squad is sanctioned by the police department, it tends to challenge the ability of the reader to suspend disbelief. While I could have accepted even a corrupt police chief being in on the action, the idea of it being an "official" hit squad that no one knows about does not make sense as a concept to me as a reader. However, in the vein of X-Force when it began with Kyle and Yost, there will likely be some takers of this concept.
A further problem is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of reasoning behind who these hit men are or why they are doing what they do. They come across as sadistic, horrible people. These are not anti-heroes who are doing things outside the law because they think it is right (at least not that I can tell), or because of some tragedy. They are, almost arbitrarily, killing people while making dark jokes to each other about what they are doing. While there are several sequences of people hinting that what the squad is doing is not right, there is never really any reason to believe that these hit men will be challenged in any way during the story. They will simply go on their way killing arbitrarily until someone bigger and meaner takes them down. Even in the ultimate showdown of the book, you find that everyone else around them does "what needs to be done". There is no moral centre to the book to contrast these horrible people with, leaving the reader wondering why would such a society even have law and order, making the whole fictional world seem very bleak.
In terms of the story telling, the transitions between sequences are difficult to follow. While the art style is distinctive the blurred, almost pastel like, colouring makes it difficult to distinguish faces. I like the art a lot, but with small dark panels, you are left as a reader trying to work out who is involved in the new scene you have been dropped into by the writers. In some scenes, it almost feels like there are small changes that would make it much better. For example, in the opening bar scene, a shift of the narration boxes might have helped identify which names went with which characters in the scene. As it was, it took three or 4 detailed readings of those two pages to work out what actually happened. In the encounter in the street with the young police officer, the coffee thrown in the officer's face appears out of nowhere, because in previous panels we were never able to see the antagonist's hands.
I think there is potential in this book, but there are small changes that would help the reader make sense of the story. I also wonder if this book would be better told in a graphic novel format, as after the first issue, the reader is not left with a lot of reasons to like any of the characters, or even to root for them. Maybe that will improve with time.
– Christopher Power