PunisherMAX: Homeless, written by Jason Aaron, art by Steve Dillon
The end of an era. Aaron’s PunisherMAX run, by dialing down the camp in favor of emotional brutality, often proved more successful than Ennis’, and this concluding volume is the harshest of all. Having destroyed his last passel of bastards despite the loss of all resources, Frank Castle meets his end not with the quiet resignation most other characters would, but instead with the same stubborn denial with which he’s led the rest of his “mission”. And all those murderous assholes he took with him? Quickly replaced with other, meaner murderous assholes. While he does end up having a very arguably positive influence, in reality he succeeded only in making the world (or at least New York City) even more violent and reactionary. I’d argue this is the truly tragic aspect of the Punisher character–his inability to make even his immediate surroundings a better place to live. While we’ll see plenty of The Punisher in other books and continuities, I wonder if any will be so distilled.
Doom Patrol vol. 3: Down Paradise Way, written by Grant Morrison, art by Richard Case and Kelley Jones
On a cheerier note, howsabout some early Grant Morrison? This third volume of the run that cemented the Doom Patrol’s status as my favorite superhero team sees them get a new home base (in the form of a sentient, transvestite street) and become embroiled in an extraordinarily odd interstellar war. While DP writers are notoriously prone to missing the mark (I’m looking at you here, Keith Giffen), Morrison nails it in one, perfectly delineating the Patrol’s mission to defend humanity from the most bizarre and existential of threats. Case and Jones’ art is unusually fantastic for the time (Morrison’s Animal Man, great as it was, was often brought low by lousy art), and Simon Bisley might just be the greatest cover artist ever, at least when he’s attached to the right book.
Wizzywig, by Ed Piskor
Before nerds were co-opted, even before they were disdained, they were something very strange: feared. The early days of personal computing and the Internet were regarded almost by those out of the loop (which was almost everyone) as a fresh well of moral panic, every geek in his basement becoming a potential agent provocateur. In such an environment, it’s not a bit surprising that an at best petty criminal, guilty of little beyond being perhaps over-blessed with curiosity and talent, should be trumped up to nothing short of a middle-American bin Laden. This is precisely the situation young Kevin Mitnick found himself in, and it’s his story with which Wizzywig primarily concerns itself. While a somewhat fictionalized account (the part where he spends five years in maximum-security prison is quite true, sadly), the book is a nice accounting of the atmosphere of unreasonable panic and media pandering which can rise from the most unlikely of sources. The depiction of early Internet culture, though, is what truly drives the point home–the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Manhattan Projects vol. 1, written by Jonathan Hickman, art by Nick Pitarra
A downside–if there is a downside–of 2012 being such a good year for comics is that you may wind up spending a long time playing catch-up. For example, not until this first week of 2013 did I get around to reading any part of Manhattan Projects. (I’ll admit my reluctance to spend money on my purported hobbies plays something of a hand in this.) Already a master of weird and unsettling, Hickman produces his best such work yet with a simple premise, namely turning the “hero-scientist” archetype into a creepy, amoral basket-case. Hickman explored this concept to a certain extent in his Fantastic Four run, but here it’s carried to its logical conclusion. Not for no reason is is this volume subtitled “Science Bad”; you know you have a problem when building the world’s first atomic bomb is the least of your sins. Manhattan Projects is a fine introduction to Hickman’s creator-owned work for all of you who missed The Nightly News. Pitarra’s pinched, splattery art suits the story well, being (I assume) deliberately off-putting.
American Vampire vol. 4, written by Scott Snyder, art by Rafael Albuquerque, Jordi Bernet and Riccardo Burchielli
God DAMN it, Scott Snyder, stop proving me wrong! Every time I get ready to close the book on vampires as a narrative device, along comes another volume of American Vampire to sort-of win me over. Don’t get me wrong, vampires have been beaten to death, but even a corpse still gets the occasional muscle-twitch as rigor mortis sets in. American Vampire succeeds in that it’s not afraid to be a horror comic, rather than focusing on action or romance. Those elements are certainly present, but not to the detriment of scares. It’s the visceral, bloody sort of horror at that; vampirism’s American subspecies carries few disadvantages, but to see one “hulk out” (especially under Albuquerque’s angular, nervous pencil) is to decide you’re doing just fine staying human. This series also has, in the form of Skinner Sweet, a vampiric protagonist with a notable (and refreshing) lack of anything remotely resembling redeeming qualities. Snyder has his deficiencies as a writer–he’s literally incapable of writing a comic without loads of first-person narration–and I still don’t like this as much as his Batman, but this is still a fun series to trick Twi-hards into reading.
Scalped vol. 10: Trail’s End, written by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guera
I end as I began, singing Jason Aaron’s praises, on yet another series-ender no less. Scalped was one of the more eye-opening series I’ve read; if it’s even a halfway-accurate depiction of life on a Native American reservation (and I suspect it is), then it’s more clear than ever these people would have been far better off had us gringos been content with our own damn continent. The series has seldom been less than brutal, and Aaron takes it one step further for the finale, waving a happy ending under our noses and then snatching it away. Nobody in this series gets away with anything less than what they deserve, but that Dash Bad Horse’s downfall comes about as a result of one of his few good deeds is almost too much. While Aaron’s proven himself a capable hired gun, I hope we don’t have to wait too long for more creater-owned work. I also hope to see more of Guera in the near future; he infused the Rez with a fascinating sort of squalid nobility, and his scenes of violence looked every bit as grimy and dehumanizing as the real thing. In his afterword, Aaron thanks then-Vertigo editor Karen Berger for taking a chance on two unknown creators, which I feel to be a salient point. Berger’s greatest editorial strength was her willingness to take risks, nearly always striking gold in the process. Only time will tell whether her replacement will display anywhere near this sense of adventure. I certainly hope so.