Comic book reviews: Bloodstrike “Brutalists”

Michel Fiffe, the talented writer and artist on the creator-owned series Copra, recently made a brief visit to the Extreme Studios corner of Image Comics via a three issue revival of Bloodstrike.  “Brutalists” is simultaneously a love letter to the wild, high-octane superhero comic books that Rob Liefeld and his collaborators produced in the 1990s and an effort at straightening out some continuity & tying up a few loose ends.

Bloodstrike 0 cover

Comic books from the early 1990s often get something of a bad rap.  It was a period when a lot of young, up & coming creators who grew up on the works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore took the trappings of their grim & gritty stories and attempted, probably unwisely, to apply them to the superhero genre as a whole.  Liefeld was one of the foremost among these young turks.  As I noted in my review of his Youngblood crossover “Babewatch” the books that came out under the Extreme Studios umbrella were characterized by copious amounts of violence, gigantic guns & swords, scantily-clad sexy babes, and more gritted teeth then you would likely see in an entire career as a dental hygienist.

Having said all that, the Extreme books were probably the perfect reading material for teenage boys of the time, including Fiffe himself, who fondly recalls the original run of Bloodstrike from his high school years.  Just as Miller and Moore had influenced the Image founders, so too did Liefeld and his colleagues then go on to influence the next generation of creators, among them Fiffe, who learned the importance of owning your own characters and going completely wild with them.  So I guess that the three part “Brutalists” story is something of a tip of the hat by Fiffe to Liefeld for helping to inspire him.

Bloodstrike was a series about a covert government entity known as Project: Born Again that utilized a strike force of undead super-powered agents to carry out all sorts of secret and illegal missions.  They were the flip side of the coin to Youngblood, the handsome, sexy, media-friendly super-heroes who the government thrust into the limelight.  While Youngblood was grabbing the headlines and fame, the top secret Bloodstrike team was off skulking in the shadows, taking care of the really unsavory work that enabled the people in power to remain in power.

The Bloodstrike team was the ultimate in superhuman cannon fodder.  They died on numerous occasions, always violently, only to be brought back to quasi-life each and every time by Project: Born Again.

Bloodstrike 0 pg 5

I did pick up a few issues of Bloodstrike back in the day, mostly due to Keith Giffen being the plotter & layout artist for issue #s 4-6.  Giffen tied the book in with events taking place in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon series and its spin-offs SuperPatriot and Freak Force.  Specifically, Giffen set up a subplot involving the high-tech subversive organization the Covenant of the Sword infiltrating Project: Born Again.  After his departure this plot was continued for several more issues by scripter Eric Stephenson, and then finally resolved by Robert Napton in issue #11, with Dragon and his adversary Cyberface also showing up.

Giffen’s brief run was genuinely bat-shit crazy, with insane amounts of over-the-top violence.  That was especially the case with issue #5 (Nov 1993).  Bloodstrike is dispatched to take down the arrogant and brutal super-human vigilante Supreme.  They fail… badly.  Supreme literally demolishes the team.  For those who have never seen that story, here’s the page from it which has Supreme violently dispatching Bloodstrike’s leader Cabbot.

Bloodstrike 5 pg 19

Oy vey!  Kids, do not try this at home!

Re-reading those three issues recently, I’ve become convinced that Giffen was writing Bloodstrike as an incredibly dark comedy.  I would not be surprised if he saw how popular violent anti-heroes had become and decided to just go ahead and produce the most exaggerated send-up of grim & gritty that he could possibly conceive.

At the same time, Giffen also really brought across the horrifying circumstances of Project: Born Again, as readers witnessed the five despairing members of the team were trapped in a revolving door of life & death, brought back to a semblance of life over and over again, each time violently dying anew.

These two aspects very much appealed to Fiffe, the comedic ultra-violence and the ultimate in existential crises, as he delves into both within “Brutalists.”  Fiffe succeeds in giving these twisted characters a certain humanity and pathos while telling some comically dark stories.

Fiffe also uses this opportunity to resolve a couple of subplots that were left dangling do to the various creative team changeovers on the original series.  One was Max, the guy who had a one night stand with Bloodstrike member Tag, and consequently became infected with some sort of disease that literally left him rotting alive.  The other was Heaton, a private eye investigating the gruesome murders of several young women in rural Virginia.  Fiffe brings them back in the second chapter of “Brutalists,” with the Covenant of the Sword also popping up.

Even the numbering of these issues is a testament to filling in the gaps.  The first part of “Brutalists” is Bloodstrike #0, giving the series the prequel “year one” type tale it never got back in the day.  The second and third parts are in Bloodstrike #23 and #24.  For the completist-minded or just anal-retentive (and I guess I fit both categories) that fills in the two issue gap created when Bloodstrike jumped forward to issue #25 for Extreme’s “Images of Tomorrow” month, then jumped back to issue #11, only to then get cancelled with issue #22.  So there you go; all these years later we finally have an uninterrupted run of Bloodstrike volume one.

Bloodstrike 23 pg 14

The original Bloodstrike definitely didn’t flinch from depicting blood & gore, and Fiffe certainly continues in that vein.  It’s an interesting contrast, though, because the artists on those books such as Dan Fraga, Chris Alexander and Richard Horie were going for the ultra-detailed look that was red-hot back in the early 1990s.

Fiffe, on the other hand, has a much more abstract, surreal quality to his art and coloring.  His layouts & storytelling are also possessed of an unconventional nature.  As a result, the violent sequences in “Brutalists” have the quality of a hazy yet still disturbing feverish nightmare.  It’s very unsettling, even more so than the exhaustively busy house style of Extreme Studios back in the day ever was.

“Brutalists” works well both as a stand-alone piece for fans of Fiffe’s work on Copra and other projects, as well as a continuation of the original storylines & characters for fans of the original Bloodstrike.  I happen to sort of fall in between those two categories, having certainly enjoyed Copra, yet also possessing a casual knowledge of the old Bloodstrike stories.

By the way, for those who are not familiar with them, Fiffe provides an extended recap of the series’ history on his website.

Bloodstrike 24 pg 4

Bloodstrike “Brutalists” is an unusual project to be sure.  Coming off of a second reading of the three issues, I felt the main strength was in seeing Fiffe being able to energetically tackle these characters he was fans of from his teenage days.  The result is some incredibly bizarre and stunning artwork, as well as stories that are simultaneously warped and humorous.  Hopefully this will also lead those unfamiliar with Fiffe to read his excellent series Copra.

Thinking it over, there are probably a few other series from Liefeld’s stable that Fiffe could also work his magic on, long-forgotten characters with convoluted histories and dangling subplots who are just waiting for someone to come along, dust them off, and give them a fresh coat of paint.  Hey, maybe Fiffe could be Roy Thomas of Extreme Studios!  He’ll come in, straighten out the back stories, tie up the loose ends, and get them up & running for the 21st Century.

Okay, all kidding aside, Liefeld did create a lot of characters with really dynamic, imaginative designs, so there’s a lot of potential there for Fiffe, or others, to explore.  And I know that several other creators have been doing just that over the past few years, producing some entertaining stories.

Bloodstrike 23 The Pouch variant cover

Oh, yes… I would be remiss if I did not mention Rob Liefeld’s own contribution to “Brutalists.” One of the things that Liefeld has often been criticized for over the years is his predilection for designing characters and costumes with pouches… lots and lots of pouches!  Who needs all those pouches?  I don’t know.  Anyway, Liefeld demonstrates that he has a sense of humor about the whole thing via a short back-up piece, as well as a couple of variant covers, which introduce a new character known as… The Pouch!  Well, I’ll admit it, I laughed.

It Came from the 1990s: Youngblood “Babewatch”

Comic books in the 1990s had a great many weird, cheesy, ridiculous storylines and gimmicks. It was a decade of excess & speculation, with innumerable new titles popping up, attempting to grab attention.  Even by the standards of the decade, though, one of the strangest stories was the “Babewatch” crossover that was published by the Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in late 1995.

Youngblood v2 3 cover
Everyone say cheesecake!

Extreme Studios was overseen by Image co-founder Rob Liefeld, who to this day remains a divisive figure in the comic book industry. On the one hand, Liefeld’s artwork has often been characterized by over-rendered pencils, wonky anatomy & minimal backgrounds, and his constantly hopping from one project to another indicates a serious lack of focus.  On the other hand, it is obvious Liefeld possesses both a genuine love of the medium and an unbridled enthusiasm for creating comic books.  Certainly he deserves credit for helping to establish Image, which eventually grew into one of the most important comic book publishers, offering a venue for innumerable creator-owned projects.

The books that Liefeld and his collaborators released through Extreme were, well, extreme. Youngblood and its numerous spin-offs were insanely larger than life, featuring a parade of big guns, bulging muscles, buckets of blood, and sexy bad girls.  It’s that last aspect that’s front & center in the “Babewatch” crossover, which sees the male members of the government super-powered team Youngblood and many of their allies mystically transformed into a line-up of lovely ladies.  Yes, really.

Co-plotters Eric Stephenson, Jim Valentino and Liefeld, working with penciler Todd Nauck and inkers Danny Miki, Karl Alstaetter & Liefeld, get the “Babewatch” ball rolling in Youngblood volume 2 #3. The issue is topped off with a comically curvaceous cover by Roger Cruz & Miki.Youngblood 3 variant cover

There is also a variant cover by Liefeld & Jonathan Sibal featuring Youngblood team leader Shaft… and I shall leave it to the discretion of the individual reader to decide if at this point “Shaft” is still an accurate moniker or not.

The immortal sorceress Diabolique has escaped from her frozen prison. She is an old adversary of Glory, the daughter of Lady Demeter, ruler of the Amazonians of the Isle of Paradise. (Suffering Sappho! I wonder how Liefeld avoided a call from DC Comics’ legal department!)  Diabolique wants revenge on Glory, her mother, and the rest of the Amazonians.

Diabolique possesses the power to control minds, but only those of males. Unfortunately for her, she has an extreme aversion towards men.  To get around this, Diabolique initiates the aforementioned mass sex change, which affects every male on Earth who has ever encountered Glory over the decades.  Diabolique then seizes mental control of the largest grouping of transformed heroes, namely everyone at Youngblood headquarters, and uses them to attack Themyscira the Isle of Paradise.

(No, really, I don’t know why Diabolique’s sorcery would work on men even after they’ve been transformed into women. What can I say?  I must have slept through Nonsensical Plot Twists 101 in college.)

Youngblood v2 3 pg 10

Stephenson understandably plays up the comedic aspect of this story. In one panel we see the transformed Youngblood members, with accompanying wacky dialogue, such as “My back is killing me” and “Um, I think I’ve got to pee.”  Thankfully there aren’t any arrows pointing to specific characters, so we’re spared finding out which smartass announces that this is “kind of a turn-on.”

I do have to say, even though the federal government is notorious for accepting lowball bids on military contracts, they must have actually gone with a firm that did quality work for Youngblood’s uniforms. That’s some really durable, stretchy spandex they’re wearing that’s holding in their, um, enhanced attributes.

Even though “Babewatch” ran through the entire Extreme line, it was actually a rather modest affair, with the central story only two parts, continuing into Glory #8. That second chapter is written by Jo Duffy, with the art team of Mike Deodato Jr, Carlos Mota & Emir Ribeiro.  Duffy is a veteran writer, having previously worked at Marvel from the late 1970s to the early 90s.  She brings a light, entertaining tone to the scripting of this chapter, which sees Glory teaming up with Youngblood’s actual female members Vogue, Riptide and Masada to repel Diabolique’s invasion of the Isle of Paradise.

I’m a fan of Duffy’s writing. She did good work during her two year run on Glory, bringing interesting plots and characterization to a series that could easily have been a mere T&A fest.  Even though “Babewatch” was a majorly goofy concept, I really enjoyed Duffy’s wrap-up of the story in issue #8.

Glory 8 pg 10

The rest of the “Babewatch” tie-in issues that month saw the various other now-female Extreme characters having their own side adventures. This led to at least a couple of odd twists.

Over in Supreme #33, Eric Stephenson, with penciler Joe Bennett and inker Norm Rapmund, was continuing the ongoing storyline of the recently-introduced younger, amnesiac Supreme, who was working with the teenage sidekick Kid Supreme. Both are affected by Diabolique’s spell.  Soon, however, Supreme realizes that there’s more than just this going on.  After flying around the globe to clear her head, she returns home, now clad in an outfit that emphasizes her, um, physique.

Announcing that she was never actually Supreme, the woman launches into Basil Exposition mode. Long story short, as a result of time travel, a battle with a mysterious alien foe, telepathy, body-swapping, and explosion-induced amnesia (whew!) Supreme’s daughter Probe from the year 3000 AD briefly came to believe that she was her father.  But thanks to Diabolique’s spell, Probe regained both her memories and her true gender.

In this instance the change caused by Diabolique remained permanent, and going forward Probe became known as Lady Supreme, because of course there’s always room for another sexy babe in the Extreme universe!

Supreme 33 pg 16

Of course, if you think what happened with Probe / Lady Supreme sounds odd, then please consider Prophet. Unlike the rest of the Extreme books, the ongoing Prophet series wasn’t interrupted by “Babewatch,” instead receiving a Prophet Babewatch Special.  Liefeld had recently scored a coup in hiring popular creator Chuck Dixon to write Prophet volume 2.  This special was undoubtedly a concession to Dixon to avoid interrupting his inaugural story arc, although he did end up also writing it, with pencils by Joe Bennett & Manny Clark and inks by Eric Cannon & Sean Parsons & Jason Gorder.  The cover is by Chap Yaep & Jonathan Sibal.Prophet Babewatch Special cover

Prophet was initially presented in Youngblood volume 1 as a deeply religious man who was transformed into a super-soldier during World War II and then kept in suspended animation for the next five decades. Just imagine a Bible-quoting, gun-toting Captain America who fights alien invaders, and you more or less have the original incarnation of Prophet.  Of course, as his storyline progressed, we later found out that Prophet also did a whole bunch of time traveling (yes, that again) via technology provided by his creator Doctor Wells.

As the Prophet Babewatch Special opens, our protagonist is once again in stasis in Wells’ lab. Diabolique’s spell is cast just as Prophet is transported back in time by Wells.  Now a woman, the semi-amnesiac Prophet arrives in Orleans in the year 1429, where she commences to lead the French against the occupying English forces.

I’m sure that if you have even a passing knowledge of French history you can see where this is going. Yep, that’s correct, the transformed Prophet is none other than… Joan of Arc!  Hey, did you know that Joan fought against the English while clad in a fashionable suit of armor that showed off her bare midriff and thighs?  I certainly didn’t!  Who says comic books aren’t educational?

Prophet Babewatch Special pg 12

Prophet of Arc spends the next two years leading the French armies, until history inevitably unfolds as written. Captured by the English in 1431, Prophet / Joan is burned at the stake, although in actuality he’s snatched from the flames at the last instant by Wells, returned to the present day, where he once again becomes a male.

Oh, yes, while Wells was busy monitoring Prophet’s adventures in France, he was attacked by another of Glory’s friends who was ensorcelled: Roman, amphibious monarch of the undersea kingdom of Neuport. (Imperious Rex!  I’m surprised Marvel’s lawyers weren’t also ringing up Liefeld!)  Diabolique’s spell fortunately ends before Roman can harm Wells.  Afterwards the scientist asks if there were any effects to the spell other than the physical change in gender, and Roman admits “Only an incredible urge to watch… what do they call them? Soaps!”  (Groan!)

Reading these issues 22 years later, I’m surprised that I found them enjoyable.  If Liefeld, or anyone else for that matter, had attempted to do this story at Marvel or DC, I would have hated it.  But since Liefeld owns Youngblood and Glory and the rest, I can just shrug and tell myself that these are his characters, so if he wants to do ridiculous stuff like this then it’s his business.  I sort of look at “Babewatch” as the comic book equivalent of an entertaining Summer action blockbuster movie, except that you don’t have to pay 15 bucks for a ticket, and you can bring your own popcorn.

cat with 3D glasses soda and popcorn

Looking at the artwork on these issues, there’s some rather poor anatomy, especially for the female characters.  Balloon breasts, arched narrow waists, elongated legs, thrusting behinds; all of the excesses that plagued the depictions of women in comics in the 1990s are on display.  Yet many of the creators who worked on these issues, as well as the other Extreme Studios books, would later grow & develop into very talented artists.  Just a few years later Todd Nauck, Mike Deodato, and Joe Bennett were all doing work that blew their efforts here out of the water.  I do have to give credit to Liefeld and Stephenson for helping them and a number of other artists get a foot in the door.

Of course, there is one other compliment which I can offer “Babewatch,” namely that no matter how cheesy it was, at least it didn’t have David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson. Although I wouldn’t be too surprised if they managed to sneak into the Glory and Friends Bikini Fest special.

Ah, the 1990s… what a decade 😛

Five new comic book artists who I like

Last month I was over at Jim Hanley’s Universe for one of their creator signing events. It just so happens that standing right next to me in line was Fabrizio Fante, author of the excellent WordPress blog Fate’s Inferno.  As we were waiting on line, Fabrizio and I got to talking about a whole bunch of topics.  One of the things that came up was new comic book artists.  Specifically, Fabrizio was curious to know which new artists I was a fan of.  And, y’know, I immediately started drawing a blank.  Every single name I could come up with off the top of my head was someone who had been working professionally for more than a decade now.  It was actually really bothering me.  Surely there had to be at least one artist who had broken into the biz after 2003 whose work I enjoyed?

I guess my subconscious mind was dwelling on the subject, because over the past few weeks several names did gradually come to me.  Yes, there are definitely a number of really good, talented individuals working in the comic book field nowadays.  I am going to spotlight some of those artists here.

Rocket Girl 1 cover signed

AMY REEDER

I first discovered the work of Amy Reeder on the Madame Xanadu series written by Matt Wagner and published by DC Comics / Vertigo.  To be perfectly honest, when I first learned that Reeder had broken into comic books via Tokyopop, I might have sighed in exasperation, figuring that she was yet another of the Manga-derivative individuals to flood comic books in the last two decades.  But actually looking at her art for Madame Xanadu, I was floored.  First of all, Reeder has this amazing storytelling sense, the ability to really lay out pages in a dramatic fashion.  Second, her first story arc “Disenchanted” was set over a millennia-long period, which required that she conduct an extraordinary amount of research to obtain an authentic look for numerous historical eras across the globe.  I was really impressed by the work she put into those ten issues.

Reeder has drawn a couple of really stunning books written by Brandon Montclare, her former assistant editor at Vertigo.  The first was the whimsical fantasy one-shot Halloween Eve, published last October.  The second is the sci-fi Rocket Girl, the first issue of which just came out.  After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the series was picked up by Image Comics.  Rocket Girl #1 looks great, and I’m very much anticipating upcoming installments.

Star Trek Doctor Who 3

J.K. WOODWARD

Working on a number of books at both IDW and BOOM! Studios over the last decade, J.K. Woodward first caught my attention when he produced amazing painted artwork for the Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation 2 miniseries written by Scott & David Tipton.  This eight issue crossover saw Captain Picard’s crew working with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy & Rory to face the combined forces of the Borg and the Cybermen.  On the early issues, Woodward did full artwork, while on the later ones he was paining over Gordon Purcell’s pencils.  In both cases, the results were fantastic.

Especially striking was Woodward’s cover artwork to issue #3, which contained a flashback to the Fourth Doctor meeting the crew of the original Enterprise and fighting some old-school Cybermen.  As someone who grew up watching Tom Baker and William Shatner on re-runs of Doctor Who and Star Trek in the early 1980s, I thought that was a super-cool addition to the story.  Woodward has stated that his childhood was spent watching many of those same reruns.  He did a stunning job on this piece.

Captain America 625 cover

FRANCESCO FRANCAVILLA

Italian artist Francesco Francavilla made his debut in 2006.  His style is quite reminiscent of the legendary Alex Toth.  I first noticed Francavilla’s work when he illustrated several issues of Captain America for Marvel Comics.  He’s also worked on Black Panther and Hawkeye, as well as rendering numerous amazing covers for a variety of publishers.  Most recently he’s been the cover artist on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time for IDW.

Amongst the current crop of “hot” artists who seem to have defaulted back to early Image Comics-inspired work full of over-rendering and excessive crosshatching, Francavilla’s retro pulp leanings are a breath of fresh air.  It has often been observed that it is the seemingly “simpler” styles of art that are actually much more difficult to pull off.  An artist does not have all the fancy bells & whistles to hide behind, and must rely on genuine talent & storytelling ability. I think that is true of Francavilla’s work.  In any case, his art has a very noir sensibility, with a palpable atmosphere to it.  He also possesses a really amazing design aesthetic, a talent for knowing exactly how to lay out a cover or a page for maximum dramatic impact.

Supreme 64 cover

CORY HAMSCHER

I’m probably bending the rules a little here, since I think Cory Hamscher has been a professional artist for slightly more than a decade.  But he’s really come into prominence in the last several years.  I first noticed his work when he illustrated a back-up story in Savage Dragon #150 that spotlighted Mr. Glum, the diminutive alien dictator from Dimension X.  Shortly after, Hamscher did an absolutely superb job inking Tom Grummett’s pencils on X-Men Forever and Chaos War: Dead Avengers.  Last year, Hamscher provided very detailed finishes to Erik Larsen’s layouts on Supreme.

Hamscher has an inking style that immediately appealed to me.  It reminds me quite a bit of the amazing embellishing of Terry Austin, who is one of my all time favorite inkers.  Hamscher just makes the pencils or layouts he is inking pop off the page.  He’s amazingly talented.  Recently on Facebook, Hamscher has expressed a desire going forward to do full artwork, i.e. both pencils & inks.  I really hope that he has that opportunity, and I’m looking forward to further announcements about his upcoming projects.

Vescell 6 cover

JOHN UPCHURCH

First becoming a professional artist in 2011, John “Roc” Upchurch has been doing stunning work on Vescell, a sci-fi / fantasy / noir series written by Enrique Carrion and published by Image.  I did a full-length review of the latest issue, #8, on my June 13th blog post, so go check it out!

Upchurch has this beautifully polished, slick quality to his work that perfectly matches Carrion’s imaginative, darkly humorous scripts.  What is especially noteworthy about Upchurch’s art is that, yes, he can draw these really stunning covers and dynamic action sequences.  But he has also demonstrated that he is a good storyteller.  Carrion’s stories have frequent “talking heads” segments where important plot points & philosophic issues are discussed.  Upchurch does a masterful job rendering these, drawing multi-panel pages which engage the reader’s attention and keep the flow of the story going.  I definitely hope to see more from Upchurch in the future, as he continues to grow & develop.  He has a hell of a lot of potential.

(By the way, I was actually able to think of at least twice as many new comic book artists as I profiled here.  But I chose to spotlight these five because they are among my favorites.  And, of course, I can always save the others for a future blog post!)

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.

The Week in Erik Larsen

This past week’s new comic book releases saw two issues published by Image Comics which contained work by one of my favorite creators, Erik Larsen.  The first was the latest issue of Savage Dragon, Larsen’s long-running creator owned series.  The second was Supreme #63, which was the first issue of that title’s revival after a twelve year absence.

I previously wrote up an in-depth review of Savage Dragon, covering the epic “Emperor Dragon” story arc.  Since then, Larsen has continued to write & draw some exciting, fun stories in the pages of Savage Dragon.  Nowadays the series is once again at the very top of my “must read” list.  At a time when financial considerations have forced me to drop a lot of titles, I purchase Savage Dragon religiously.

The latest issue, #179, features a long-running minor subplot, namely the space war between the Kalyptans and the Tyrraneans taking place at the opposite end of the galaxy, often alluded to but never actually seen until recently, exploding into life.  The Kalyptan hero Vanguard, a long-time cast member in the series, learned to his horror that the Tyrraneans had finally won the war.  They were now hunting down the last surviving Kalyptans.  Tracking Vanguard to Earth, they found a world ripe for conquest.  Cue massive alien invasion by a horde of unstoppable rampaging monsters.

Supreme #63 is quite a different book.  The character of Supreme was created by Rob Liefeld as a Superman pastiche.  Liefeld saw the character of Supreme as a way to examine what would happen if Superman was unencumbered by society’s laws and morality, if he felt he knew better than everyone else.  It was a grim, ultra-violent book.  To be honest, I never was a fan, and I own maybe two or three issues from the first couple of years.  I especially remember an issue of another Liefeld title, Bloodstrike, which saw Supreme violently dismembering the anti-hero black ops title characters.

But then a strange thing happened.  Liefeld approached award winning writer Alan Moore to take over Supreme.  Moore, who had written a few excellent Superman stories in the 1980s, re-imagined Supreme as a fantastical meta-textual examination of superhero comic books through the ages, featuring a number of whimsical Silver Age homages.  I did not become an immediate fan of the series, but I picked up several issues, which I enjoyed.

Moore’s stories appeared in Supreme #s 41-56 and Supreme: The Return #s 1-6.  Due to financial difficulties, the book was canceled.  I also suspect that Liefeld’s notorious short attention span, which has often led him to over-commit to various projects, may have played a role in his publishing efforts folding up prematurely.  In any case, after the end of Supreme, there were rumors floating about that Moore had written one last script for the series which was never illustrated.

Fast forward a dozen years.  Apparently conditions had come together for Liefeld to revive a quartet of his titles with new creative teams.  The books’ editor Eric Stephenson got together with Erik Larsen to discuss his taking over one of the four.  They eventually settled on Supreme.  This was an excellent choice, given Larsen’s unabashed love of using the tropes of Silver Age comics as a starting point and then putting modern, unconventional spins on them.

Larsen drew pencil layouts from Moore’s unpublished script, with Cory Hamscher providing the finished pencils and inking.  I really enjoyed Hamscher’s inking on X-Men Forever and other projects.  He has a style akin to legendary embellisher Terry Austin.  The collaboration between Larsen and Hamscher is very strong.  They go together very well.

Supreme #63 is a wild, incredibly cosmic story by Moore.  It also ends on a massive cliffhanger.  Starting next issue, Larsen is taking over as writer.  He has the unenviable task of following in Moore’s footsteps, but I cannot wait to see what he does with the series.  Larsen has one of the most ambitious, unrestrained imaginations in comic books nowadays.  If anyone can take the seeds planted by Moore and run with them in an interesting yet different direction, it’s Larsen.

By the way, I also appreciate that Supreme, along with the other three revivals spearheaded by Liefeld & Stephenson, reverted to the original numbering, rather than starting with a new issue #1.  Call me overly traditional, but I really like it when a comic book series has a long, uninterrupted run, instead of getting a rebooted first issue every few years for the sake of a brief spike in sales & publicity.

It’s also great to see Larsen on such a high-profile project.  I hope that people who read Supreme will give Savage Dragon a chance.  It really is a great series.