Aquaman (New 52) vol. 1: The Trench, written by Geoff Johns, art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado
Geoff Johns is very, very keen for all of us to recognize that Aquaman isn’t useless. Fair enough. Even if I didn’t accept the various explanations as to why he isn’t, I’m sick enough of “Aquaman is useless” jokes to concede the point. While the argument may be a convincing one, however, it does not in and of itself make for a good comic. These six comics use the same plot over and over: People make fun of Aquaman, Aquaman shuts (most of) them up by doing something awesome. Oh yeah, and Mera takes exception to being called “Aquawoman”. One issue I have is this series would need to be rather a bit more lighthearted in tone to pull this off effectively; instead, it falls into the standard DCnU rut of grimaces, bloodshed and popped collars. The violence, at the very least, works better here than in some other New 52 books–ferocious combat, particularly with deep-sea horrors, seems to suit the protagonists well. These days you can’t have your hero carry around a five-pointed trident (pentdent?) and not have him skewer the occasional freakish pirahna-man. A larger problem is that, as a character, Aquaman just isn’t that compelling. Johns fails to realize that being a physical powerhouse is all well and good, but if your character doesn’t have charisma to match people are going to perforce latch onto the nearest available point of reference, in this case the whole “talks to fish” thing. Contrast this with his Marvel counterpart, Namor the Sub-Mariner, who has a discernible, recognizable personality which informs his motivations and actions. Reis’ artwork has much the same problem, being technically decent but rather soulless; it is, however, better than issue #6, when Prado takes over and things go well and truly to shit. I wouldn’t quite call this book bad–the action sequences are legitimately awesome–but it just doesn’t rank above a “meh” with me. Story of Aquaman’s life, right?
Black Lung, by Chris Wright
Something occurs to me as I type this: I have been reading a LOT of violent, gory stuff this week. This book, however, is and likely shall remain the most effective. This is due to it being the most honest of the bunch, never once shying away from the psychological costs of brutality. It may start out terrifying, then turn to exhilarating, but at what point does a life of violence become monotonous? Wherever that point might lay, one look at the bedraggled, world-weary faces of Black Lung’s assorted thugs, brigands and lowlifes assures you they’ve long since passed it–assuming, of course, they haven’t simply gone insane. Something about Wright’s art all but demands empathy, forcing you to see their point of view to the extent that mere upper-class apathy seems altogether more inhumane than all the grievous bodily harm on display. And there’s rather a lot of that–Wright’s off-putting anthropomorphisms and disproportionate limbs in no way detract from the shocking detail of trauma. I get the feeling Wright studied a lot of crime-scene photographs. The levels of depravity on display seem to preclude any hope of redemption. But impossibly, shockingly, that’s precisely what happens, albeit in the most roundabout and unexpected way imaginable.
Orient Gateway, by Vittorio Giardino
On a somewhat lighter note, here’s an obscure Eurocomic for you all. A downright nostalgic one too, the kind whose art carries no less impact and charisma for all its clean photorealism. It’s obvious Giardino is a huge Milo Manara fan, to the point of aping his work perhaps a touch too closely. Oh well, there are certainly worse artists to emulate. This is one of those books you can easily read untranslated, just by and for the art alone. That said, the writing is decent enough, if clumsily translated as per normal. While a spy novel on its surface, Ian Fleming this is not, presenting the world of international intrigue less as a ripping yarn and more as a hot mess of misunderstandings and mistaken identity, one whose protagonists do little except run away. It’s like a comedy of errors, only it’s not especially funny. In fact, by book’s end it’s downright depressing. None of which makes for an unpleasant read–it’s pretty hard to say no to that artwork.
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, written by Justin Jordan, art by Tradd Moore
I found myself thinking of this as the book Kick-Ass could have been if Mark Millar wasn’t horrible. While superficially similar, Strode comes across as a much more honest and effective meditation on the superhero archetype and its potential to go catastrophically wrong. All the good intentions in the world don’t mean you won’t end up jamming a severed arm down somebody’s throat. The weirdest part is, once you read this book all the way through you wind up thinking, this was things going WELL. The more you learn of the nature and source of Luther’s power and talents, the more you shudder at how this book might have turned out had he not fought destiny quite so hard. Moore’s whippy art uses blood like confetti, the violence as balletic as it is visceral–you haven’t seen a decapitation until you see the head shoot straight up from the neck, corkscrewing blood in its wake. My main complaint with this book is the finale, which appears to be going for tragic but is in reality a setup for the most blatant fake-out ending ever committed to paper.
Venom vol.1, written by Rick Remender, art by Tony Moore
I leave you this week with yet more evidence that Marvel has, for the second time in the past decade (the first being the Civil War era), officially lost its damn mind. Difference is, this time around it is an absolute thing of beauty. The House of Ideas seems to have become precisely that, willing to take risks on pitches that seem absurd on their face–and pitches don’t get much more seemingly absurd than Spider-man supporting character Flash Thompson acquiring the Venom symbiote after losing his legs in Afghanistan. Rick Remender is something of an expert at this sort of thing, having previously spun pure gold out of what appeared to be the most shamelessly pandering concept of all time. I went into that series convinced it would be the acme of everything wrong with American comics, but it proved to be just the opposite.
Venom isn’t quite that successful, but it’s pretty good in its own right. Flash is a believably flawed figure, a guy with a lot of personal demons to purge, seeking redemption through his work and the example of his childhood hero. That latter point is downright heartwarming, actually–it’s proof that Spider-man has well and truly earned his superhero cred. As to the former, the symbiote serves almost as an externalization of Flash’s issues, representing something with the potential to make a horrendous mess of things should he lose control. If that’s too psychobabbly for you, this is also a series where the hero uses the symbiote to dual-wield M-16s, and which takes the standard “superheroes get in a fight over a misunderstanding” plot and does it well. Take a moment to ponder the ramifications of that. Moore’s art is pretty nice too, though I preferred the more stripped-down look he sported in The Walking Dead.