Comic book reviews: The Fox by Dean Haspiel and friends

Given that I enjoyed the New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes miniseries Archie Comics / Red Circle published a year ago, I was probably going to get their next offering, the five issue miniseries The Fox.  Of course, as soon as I found out that Dean Haspiel would be plotting and illustrating the book, well, I was sold.

I’ve been a fan of Haspiel’s work since he collaborated with Josh Neufeld on the Keyhole anthology series in the late 1990s, and subsequently worked solo on his Billy Dogma stories.  Haspiel is one of those rare creators who successfully straddle the worlds of independent and mainstream comics. He is equally at home crafting bizarre, experimental projects and chronicling the adventures of popular Marvel & DC superheroes.  In fact, The Fox is very much a meeting ground between those two worlds, as Haspiel brings his innovative small press sensibilities with him in a clever revamping of a long-time Red Circle costumed crime-fighter.

The Fox 2 pg 1

Paul Patton Jr. is the son of the original Fox.  Unlike his father, Paul never set out to be a hero.  Rather, as a photojournalist, Paul felt that by becoming a masked vigilante he could attract news stories, create material to help his career.  Unfortunately Paul eventually realized that he had become, in Haspiel’s words, a “freak magnet,” attracting all sorts of bizarre individuals & strange events without meaning to.  Now all Paul desperately wants is a normal life with his wife and kids.  But fate just keeps conspiring against him, throwing a succession of oddities and curveballs his way with alarming regularity.

Scripting “Freak Magnet” is veteran writer Mark Waid.  I really enjoyed his work in the past on such series as The Flash, Captain America, The Brave and the Bold, and Kingdom Come.  Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Waid is old-school, traditional superhero tales (and I mean that as a compliment) he really is a diverse scribe, having also penned the extremely dark titles Empire and Irredeemable.  With The Fox, Waid shows yet another side of his talent, scripting some hysterically insane dialogue to accompany Haspiel’s bizarre, surreal plotting.  The two make a hell of a team.  And, yeah, you could say that Waid makes the Fox much more witty and eloquent than the original Golden Age version, who was introduced in 1940 by writer Joe Blair & artist Irwin Hasen:

The Fox Irwin Hasen

“Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!”  Indeed.

Beginning in issue #2 is a back-up story featuring the Shield.  Writer J.M. DeMatteis reunites with penciler Mike Cavallaro, who he previously collaborated with on The Life and Times of Savior 28.  Joining them is the insanely talented Terry Austin who, as I’ve mentioned on at least one occasion, is one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz. He does superb work over Cavallaro’s pencils here.

DeMatteis’ story is a flashback to World War II, as Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, heads to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious power source that the military suspect is being caused by an unknown Axis super-weapon.  At first tangling a horde of monsters, the Shield then encounters the German and Japanese agents Master Race and Hachiman.  Not stopping to ask questions, the Shield leaps at them, engaging the two Axis super-soldiers in battle.  But these three men soon discover that things are not as simple as they seem.

The Fox 2 pg 25

One of the aspects of DeMatteis’ writing that I have appreciated since I first encountered it way back in the pages of Captain America #278 was that he would demonstrate that not every problem can be solved with violence.  In a genre such as superhero comic books, which (truth be told) often involves costumed superhumans beating each other senseless, this is a somewhat unusual approach, one that has often set DeMatteis apart from his contemporaries.  But I appreciate that he scripts protagonists who utilize their intelligence & reasoning to arrive at a more constructive solution than punching the other guy in the face.

Not to get too political, but there is such a significant problem in the real world where non-violent strategies are frowned upon.  One need only look at reactions to the current crisis in the Ukraine.  Various politicians are decrying the tactics of negotiations with and economic sanctions against Russia because they make the United States look “weak.”  Of course, the people usually calling for military action either cannot or will not recognize that conflicts such as this one are not black & white affairs with “good guys” and “bad guys” that can be quickly & neatly solved by blowing up some “evil” enemy.  And you can be guaranteed that those saber-rattling politicos and armchair generals are not the types to lay their own lives on the line in the service of their country, instead leaving it to others to fight & die on the battlefield.

Very unexpectedly, the extremely different adventures of Paul Patton and Joe Higgins come crashing together at the end of issue #4, as the Fox, having helped rescue the other-dimensional Diamond Realm from the diabolical Druid, is transported back to Earth.  But instead of returning to the United States in 2014, an alarmed Fox materializes in Antarctica seven decades earlier, ending up smack dab in the middle of a four-way fight between the Shield, Master Race, Hachiman and an equally time-displaced Druid.

The Fox 5 pg 9

With DeMatteis taking over both the plotting & scripting for the final issue, I really wondered how this would work out.  DeMatteis has very different sensibilities from Waid.  Much of his work features psychoanalytical or spiritual tones.  That’s not to say that DeMatteis cannot do comedy, because he has written some very funny stories in the past.  But, yes, there is a somewhat abrupt shift in mood between #4 and #5.  Perhaps DeMatteis might have endeavored to maintain some of the Fox’s irreverent commentary in the concluding issue.  But, on the whole, it is a pretty effective conclusion.  The fact that the Fox is not your typical superhero, that he really just wants to have a nice, quiet life, makes him just the sort of individual to think outside the box.  He’s the one who is able to realize that the Shield, Master Race, and Hachiman have to stop thinking with their fists, set aside their distrust, and come up with a more intelligent strategy to stop the Druid.

Haspiel does a fine job illustrating the concluding issue.  After the wacky shenanigans of the preceding four chapters, he ably shifts gears, ably depicting both the gritty horrors of war and the mystic, esoteric final confrontation with the Druid.

I also have to give a tip of the hat to John Workman.  As always, his lettering is dynamic.  It’s an oft-overlooked art.

One other nice touch to The Fox was that there were a number of tie-ins with New Crusaders.  In addition to the Shield, there are also appearances by Dusty the Space Chimp and Bob Phantom.  And we learn that Paul Patton’s daughter is Fly-Girl.  For those who have also read New Crusaders, these are nice touches that will make you go “A-ha!”  But they are done in such a way that if you’ve never laid eyes on that other miniseries, you will still be able to appreciate The Fox as a stand-alone piece.  That is how continuity should work.

The Fox 1 Freak Magnet cover signed

I did think that having 17 covers for 5 issues was a bit much, though.  Yeah, there was some nice artwork on those variants.  I guess they’ll make for a really lovely gallery in the back of the upcoming trade paperback.  Okay, I did splurge a bit and pick up a couple of the alternate covers, namely Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” issue #1 variant, and the cover for #5 showcasing a vintage rendering of the Fox by the late, great Alex Toth.

All in all, despite a couple of hiccups, The Fox was very well done.  I’m glad that Haspiel & Waid are already working on a second miniseries.  I’m definitely looking forward to the further misadventures of everyone’s favorite freak magnet.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #5-6

Writer Ian Flynn wraps up the initial New Crusaders story arc in the final two issues of the Rise of the Heroes miniseries.  “Trial by Fire” sees the nefarious Brain Emperor breaking into Z.I.P. Prison to liberate his inner circle of costumed criminals.  To facilitate the escape, he lets loose the entire population of the penitentiary.  When the New Crusaders arrive, the inexperienced teenage heroes, who would already have faced the daunting task of opposing the villain who defeated their parents, the original Mighty Crusaders, find themselves having to put down a full scale prison riot.

As the Brain Emperor goes about reviving his elite followers, the New Crusaders are quickly being overwhelmed by the dozens upon dozens of convicts who have been set free.  Unexpected help does come from a trio of prisoners, though.  Hangman, Black Hood and Deadly Force are all former superheroes who were sent to jail for excessive force and manslaughter.  Now they’ve decided to side with the children of their former teammates in putting down the riot.  But even with the aid of this threesome, and the veteran leadership of the Shield, the Crusaders face an almost impossible task.

New Crusaders #6 cover by Fiona Staples
New Crusaders #6 cover by Fiona Staples

Flynn does an excellent job showing how these neophyte crime fighters deal with their first mission.  The Jaguar, who previously faced the challenge of being accepted by the ancient spirit inhabiting her helmet, has to now struggle to contain the cat god’s wish to drive her to savagery.  Likewise, we also see Steel Sterling is attempting to take down the prisoners without resorting to lethal force, an approach that is challenged by Hangman as naïve.  The other Crusaders also face similar obstacles.

In the end, unsurprisingly, things do not go well, to say the least, and the Crusaders’ first mission, despite succeeding, has a most bitter cost.  And these dispirited young heroes still have to face a future encounter with the Brain Emperor himself.  Their story continues in May with the next miniseries, Dark Tomorrow.  I hope that that title doesn’t mean things will become all “grim and gritty.”  But Flynn has certainly built up enough goodwill during Rise of the Heroes that I’ll be approaching this with an open mind.

The art team of Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin continued to turn in excellent work in these concluding issues of the first New Crusaders miniseries.  They have an art style that at first glance may appear deceptively simple, in the vein of Mike Parobeck or Bruce Timm.  But I imagine that there is a great deal of craftsmanship & storytelling to their work.  They don’t have the luxury of hiding behind hyper-detailed renderings or excessive cross-hatching.  I’m looking forward to their return a few months from now on Dark Tomorrow.

New Crusaders #6 page 27 by Sergio Cariello
New Crusaders #6 page 27 by Sergio Cariello

There is also a back-up story in Rise of the Heroes #6 that is illustrated by Sergio Cariello, a retrospective look back at the career of the original Fireball.  I’ve enjoyed Cariello’s work at DC Comics in the past, so it’s nice to see him pop up here at Archie.  Hopefully he’ll be asked to contribute more work on the Red Circle imprint in the future, either on New Crusaders or one of the tie-in books that Archie has planned.

All in all, New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes was a solid, entertaining introductory arc by Ian Flynn and the various other writers & artists involved.  I’m looking forward to where these characters head next.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #2-4

The first issue of New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes, published by Archie / Red Circle Comics, saw the original, retired Mighty Crusaders attacked and seemingly killed by their arch enemy, the sinister Brain Emperor. The sole survivor of the carnage was Joe Higgins, the Shield, who rushed the teenage children of the Crusaders to his underground safe haven.

As the second issue of New Crusaders opens, the six children of the fallen heroes are coming to grips with the apparent deaths of their parents & guardians. The Shield, who isn’t certain how to console them, instead takes on the role of mentor & drill sergeant and begins to prepare them to take over as the successors to the fallen Mighty Crusaders. This was something their parents had intended them to eventually do when the time was right. But now the Shield has to give his trainees a crash course. Emphasis on “crash.”

Writer Ian Flynn does excellent work scripting New Crusaders #s 2-4. All the shocked teenagers want to do is take the time to mourn their parents. Instead of being given the opportunity to adjust to the massive upheaval in their lives, through, the Shield chucks them in the deep end. And, not unexpectedly, they flounder, and their grief is now compounded with resentment at the Shield for attempting to turn them into soldiers at this most vulnerable moment. In the process, Flynn really gives us the opportunity to get to know these kids. After all, there was so much going on in the first issue that at the end they were still ciphers. So it was a wise decision on Flynn’s part to take the time to gradually develop them over the course of these next three issues of the series. I really felt I got to know who these six people were.

At the end of New Crusaders #4, the teens have embraced their legacies and adopted their parents’ costumed identities. They have begun training to use their new powers & abilities. And then the news comes: the Brain Emperor has struck again. Which presumably means that these new costumed heroes are about to endure a baptism of fire. This could be really messy!

New Crusaders #4 page 17, by Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin
New Crusaders #4 page 17, by Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin

As I mentioned in my review of issue #1, I really enjoyed the artwork on New Crusaders. The quality of the artwork continued with issue #s 2-4. Ben Bates returns to pencil the second issue, and he does an excellent job with this crucial story, really helping to get across the grief and anger of the teenagers. Bates also provides layouts for issue #3, with incoming artist Alitha Martinez doing the finished pencils. Martinez takes over full penciling chores with #4, and she turns in some exemplary work. Inking all three issues is Gary Martin.

I also wanted to point out the contributions of John Workman. He is one of the all time greatest letterers in the comic book biz. As I’ve mentioned in the past, he is probably best known for lettering Walter Simonson on numerous books over the years. It’s really great to see Workman on New Crusaders. He really has a dynamic style to his work that makes the dialogue, captions, and sound effects come alive.

Another veteran comic book pro who also contributes to New Crusaders is Rich Buckler. I’ve always enjoyed his work, especially his groundbreaking Deathlok series. Buckler was one of the artists who worked on Archie’s Mighty Crusaders title in the early 1980s. It was great that he was asked to contribute a cover to New Crusaders #4. I really hope that Archie will have him do more work for them. Issue #3 included a reprint of a 1980s back-up story he worked on featuring Fly-Girl. I’d like to see him be able to draw some brand new material for the back-up slot in New Crusaders.

New Crusaders #4 cover by Rich Buckler
New Crusaders #4 cover by Rich Buckler

Speaking of the back-up stories, issue #s 2 and 4 had original material. It was cool to see Chuck Dixon write a Comet back-up story. And my absolute favorite inker/finisher, the legendary Terry Austin, was also on hand. He inked the prelude to The Lost Crusade, an upcoming series written by Flynn and Dixon that is going to explore the original team’s missing years. I knew that Austin had been working for Archie the last few years, but it was great to see him on New Crusaders. As with Buckler, I hope Austin is asked back again.

As I understand it, New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes has two more issues to go. After wrapping up, the next miniseries is going to be titled Dark Tomorrow. So far, I’ve really been enjoying this book. It’s an exciting series with really thoughtful writing, interesting characters, and superb artwork. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what happens next. For me, it’s much more engaging that the majority of the material currently being release by DC or Marvel. So I highly recommend giving New Crusaders a try.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #1

Archie Comics is, of course, very well known for publishing the fun, comedic adventures of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale.  What is probably not as well known is that throughout their 73 year history is that they have, from time to time, dabbled in superhero comic books.

I first became aware of characters such as the Shield, the Fly, and the Comet back in the early 1990s.  DC Comics had licensed the Archie superheroes and created new interpretations of them under an imprint titled Impact Comics (or !mpact Comics with an exclamation point).  Impact only lasted about two years before being canceled due to low sales, but I tremendously enjoyed those books they put out during that brief time.  And I discovered a few of the earlier Archie-published comics in the back issue bins, including an issue of Mighty Crusaders from the early 1980s featuring artwork by comic book legends Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers, Tony DeZuniga, and Rudy Nebres.

A few years ago there was apparently a second, more recent attempt by DC to license the Archie superheroes, this time to integrate them directly into DC continuity, but for one reason or another this didn’t work out, and the properties are now back with their owners.  Archie has revived their old Red Circle Comics imprint and are publishing New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes.  The series actually made its debut in an online digital format a few months ago, but this past week it came out in print format with the release of New Crusaders #1 in comic book shops.

Yesterday, Midtown Comics did a signing featuring several of the creators involved with New Crusaders: writer Ian Flynn, cover artist Ryan Jampole, and artist Alitha Martinez, who takes over drawing the series with issue #3.  Since I was such a fan of the Impact incarnations of these characters, I went to the signing to purchase New Crusaders #1.  I had the chance to talk to Ian Flynn for a few minutes, and he seems to have a lot of enthusiasm and ideas for the series.  He mentioned doing a quite a bit of research into the various past incarnations of the Archie heroes in preparation for chronicling their new adventures.

New Crusaders #1, autographed by Ian Flynn and Ryan Jampole
New Crusaders #1, autographed by Ian Flynn and Ryan Jampole

New Crusaders #1 opens with a reunion of the members of the superhero team the Mighty Crusaders, who are now all retired to the town of Red Circle, living incognito and raising families, their arch-foes defeated years before under unrevealed circumstances.  Unfortunately, the aging heroes are attacked by a menace from the past that crashes the reunion.  While the majority of the adults try to hold back their old enemy, the Shield takes their teenage children to safety.

Flynn appears to be establishing a scenario wherein the children of the Mighty Crusaders have to step into the void left by their defeated parents, with the Shield serving as mentor to the new team.  The first issue of New Crusaders serves as a set-up for this by introducing the young cast and showing the fall of the original heroes.  It is always the hallmark of a good comic book that when you get to the end of the issue you cannot wait for the next to come out to see what happens next.  That was certainly the case here, and I am eagerly anticipating next month’s issue.

Writing for an all-ages audience is not an easy task.  A lot of the time, there is an awful temptation to talk down to children, to make things overly simple or safe.  It’s all too easy to underestimate younger readers.  But I guess I am young enough that I can still remember what it was like to be a kid and encounter material that felt like it was being condescending to me or underestimating me as a reader.  Flynn does not make that mistake here.  He writes a story that is truly appropriate for all ages, one that both children and adults can appreciate.  I have to give him major recognition for that and, as I said before, I am looking forward to what he does with this series next.

As to the artwork, Ben Bates & Gary Martin do a very lovely job, with an animated style.  I was very much reminded of the work of the late Mike Parobeck (who, incidentally, drew The Fly for Impact Comics).  I’m a big fan of that style, and it works perfectly here.  I think that it has a deceptively simple look to it, but that drawing in such a style can actually be much more difficult.  The artist cannot hide behind over-rendering, crosshatching, or any other embellishments, instead having to rely on good, solid storytelling.  Certainly the penciling by Bates is very good in this respect, very clear & concise.  The inking by Martin has a very neat, solid line to it, as well.

As I understand it, Alitha Martinez will be coming onboard with New Crusaders #3, working over Bates’ pencil layouts, before then taking over full art chores with the subsequent issue.  In the past, she’s done nice work on Iron Man and Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four.  Recently, she penciled a couple of fill-in issues of Batgirl that were stunning.  The previews of her work for New Crusaders #3 that I’ve seen online look very promising.

For those who have lamented that both DC and Marvel’s recent “renovations” or “reboots” of their superhero comic book lines were not reader friendly, I would recommend checking out New Crusaders, either in the comic shops, or on the Red Circle website.  If the first issue is any indication, it’s a very promising title, one that hopefully will bring in a lot of younger readers.  As for myself, I’m 36 years old, but I fully intend to see where it goes.