Western Comics: Capsule Reviews
Captain America #28
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artist: Leonard Kirk
This comic quickly became infamous on social media for its gratuitous - and not at all disguised - swipe at one of the writer’s prominent philosophical opponents, but I’m not going to use this space to comment on that bit of controversy (other than to state the obvious: it was bad writing). Instead, I’m going to focus on what this comic gets wrong when it comes to the personality and motivations of Steve Rogers. As I wrote in a longer blog post on this particular issue, Steve didn't embrace service to his country because he was weak and lacking in purpose. His desire to enlist was a function of his greatest strength: his steadfast morality. Yes, he was shrimpy before the serum. But he's Captain America because he recognized evil and cruelty in the world and desperately wanted to confront it head on — not because he was some pathetic character seeking to fill a spiritual hole. Furthermore, the premise that Steve would be fundamentally humiliated if he were rescued by a woman completely ignores the female Avengers under whose leadership he’s happily served — and the multiple times they’ve saved his bacon without prompting Steve’s objection. In other words: the villains’ plan here is dumb. Indeed, it diminishes said villains and Steve to reduce the former to disgruntled vloggers. Even beyond the ridiculous caricature of Jordan Peterson, this book is definitely not one I would recommend. ★
Way of X #1
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Bob Quinn
The most recent crop of X-Men books are, to put it mildly, polarizing. In one camp, we have the intrigued: comic book fans who generally trust the overall creative vision of Jonathan Hickman and expect this different take on mutantkind to lead to some sort of revelation that will ultimately redeem their current behavior. In the other, we have the angry: fans who believe their lifelong favorites have now become supremacist villains for no discernible, salutary reason. To be honest with you, I lean more toward the second position than the first — which is why the 40-page first issue of Way of X caught me so completely by surprise. I picked it up to see how exactly Marvel was planning to screw up Nightcrawler and, in particular, his established Catholic Christian faith. I put it down feeling hopeful (maybe foolishly) that someone at the leading, oh-so-frequently-misguided American comic book publisher actually has some brains — and a chest to match.
Which is not to say that this book is perfect. There are times when Kurt’s dialogue doesn’t quite sound like Kurt. At one point, for example, he states that he “can see no moral flaw” in how the mutants of Krakoa are currently behaving, which certainly doesn’t line up with the explicit horror he displays while witnessing his fellows’ casual disregard for the sanctity of life. As I wrote in the comments of one YouTube review, I think this line should’ve been “I can articulate no moral flaw” rather than “I can see no moral flaw.” I can buy that Kurt is having trouble reconciling his religious traditions - and their associated moral instincts - with the fact of effective mutant immortality. But he quite obviously does see - and is just as clearly bothered - that killing mutants in gladiatorial arenas so that they may theoretically be resurrected with all their powers intact has made many mutants careless and cruel.
Still, it is so, so promising that this comic actually acknowledges the darkness beneath the surface of Krakoan society. This is only the first chapter of this story, so there is still time to utterly flub the landing. But for me, this opening did what no X book has done for years: earned a digital subscription. ★★★1/2
Writer: Phillip K. Johnson
Artists: Sami Basri & Scott Godlewski
It’s only been a couple months, but I’ve been liking Johnson’s work on the Superman titles so far. He’s shown signs that he does understand the true source of Superman’s heroism. Even more importantly, he’s addressing the relationship between Clark and Jon in a very earnest, very heartfelt manner. As some readers of Tightbeam may know, when Jon was aged up (via time/dimensional travel shenanigans), many fans of Superman who enjoyed the dynamics of the Kent family were upset. Well, in issue 30 in particular, Johnson wisely acknowledges those reader complaints in the narrative itself, allowing Clark to express regret that he missed an enormous chunk of his son’s boyhood. If Johnson can continue dipping into this well of genuine human emotion, I think what will result is a fine-to-great run. ★★★1/2
Batman: Urban Legends
And speaking of genuine human emotion: I can’t recommend the above anthology as a whole. Most of the stories are, for me, eminently forgettable. But if you have the money to spare, you may want to pick this up just for Chip Zdarsky’s Red Hood story, which explores Jason Todd’s troubled past - and his equally strained relationship with Batman - as he tries to do the right thing for a boy he’s quite possibly orphaned through his own rash (though understandable) actions. Said story really is a master class in establishing character motivation - specifically, in driving Jason Todd to murder despite his promise to Batman that he would refrain from killing - and, like Three Jokers (which I reviewed in this column a while back), really tries to get at the core of Todd’s trauma. I only wish Zdarsky had been given his own book!
For the anthology: ★★1/2; for Zdarsky’s story alone: ★★★★
The Underfoot, vol. 2
Writers: Ben Fisher & Emily Whitten
Artist: Michelle Nguyen
(Caracal, Fantasy, Young Adult)
The protagonists of this terrific - and sadly underrated - series are intelligent hamsters — descendants of uplifted lab animals who survived some as-of-now mysterious environmental cataclysm that resulted in the disappearance of their former (presumably human) masters. In this volume, we are introduced to a lizard antagonist who deeply resents that his kind were left behind when the mammals escaped their cages and is therefore determined to visit revenge upon the “furs” once and for all. It's a basic plot — but nonetheless well-crafted. The writers elegantly solve the world-building vs. satisfying progression problem by adding explanatory notes between “chapters,” thereby allowing the story itself to move at a brisk, enjoyable pace. And as with the first volume, the characters are all distinct and lovingly rendered. I definitely recommend this series to any fan of the Redwall or Green Ember books. I myself am eager to pick up volume 3! ★★★1/2
Soulfinder: Black Tide (Book 2)
Writer: Douglas Ernst
Artist: Matthew Weldon
(Iconic Comics, Christian Fantasy)
This series stars a Catholic priest, exorcist, and combat veteran who’s learned he’s especially suited to fight the demonic. Ernst is a very new writer, but he knows how to pick good artists to complement his work. Further, I think his writing reaps the benefits of his real-world experience, his Catholic tradition, and his additional reading in history and philosophy. Impressively, he manages to invent an entirely plausible (but still fictional) saint story to round out the background for the relic that drives the plot for the current volume. And I have always appreciated that the protagonist's abilities here are rooted in his acquaintance with suffering. It’s a solid showing, to say the least — one that manages to convey a religious worldview without necessarily putting off readers with more secular mindsets. Ernst is coming from a clear perspective, but he focuses first on his storytelling and doesn’t preach. ★★★1/2
Batman: Shadow of the Bat
The Last Arkham
Writer: Alan Grant
Artist: Norm Breyfogle
One of my regular correspondents found the first issue of this story in a bargain bin at his local shop, and on his recommendation, I immediately decided to check out the entire story for myself. The premise? There’s a serial killer on the loose in Gotham whose MO quite closely resembles that of a criminal who’s presumed to be locked up in Arkham Asylum. Suspecting that said criminal has found an escape route within the asylum’s walls, Batman arranges to be imprisoned there — and is immediately abused and tormented by Arkham’s newest lead psychiatrist. What I like about this several issue arc is that it shows there is more than one way to be a villain. On one side, you have the maniac who cuts tally marks into his skin for every murder he perpetrates. On the other, you have Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, who exudes a coldly intellectual, calculating evil that is driven by totalizing ideology rather than a pure lust for mayhem. Speaking for myself, I found the latter a more frightening foe. His absolute certainty that he can modify anyone’s anti-social behavior is creepy in the extreme — as is his (eerily familiar) conviction that the past is worthless and ripe for erasure. If you pick this up, be sure to look out for the B. F. Skinner easter egg! ★★★1/2
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