When DC Comics rebooted its entire line of comics two years ago they started a yearly tradition. Each September all of their titles would fall under a single banner (last year for example saw each title receive a #0 issue, with stories set in character’s pasts). This year we have, for our sins, Villains Month. Each title has been “taken over” by a villain. There has been a massive sprawl of complaints from retailers about how this has been handled, and really, the overall quality of comics that has come out is, like much of DC’s output these days, mediocre at best. There are, however, a few bright spots. One such bright spot is the confusingly named Justice League 23.3: Dial E from China Mieville, and twenty-one artists. Mieville’s wonderfully strange, 80’s Vertigo throwback series Dial H was cancelled last month and was one of the highlights of mainstream superhero comics, telling bizarre stories about an old phone dial which could provide the user with different superpowers whenever they dialed the numbers spelling H-E-R-O. The series comes highly recommended. Dial E continues the concept, albeit with a group of kids who find the dial and use it to get away from a few bad guys. The twist? Each page is drawn by a different artist, and each page features at least one different superhero. So you get beautiful artwork from some of the top industry talents including Emma Rios, Jeff Lemire, and Brendan McCarthy, drawing his first interior work for DC for decades. You also get the endless invention and wit of Mieville, with the introduction of heroes such as The Bends, Wet Blanket, and Bad Dressage (“you will feel my piaffe.”) As a fan of the previous series, it is an enjoyable enough coda and a great celebration of brilliant comic book art. As a story though, it’s curiously empty, favouring high concept silliness over characterisation, and simple plotting over smarts. Mieville should know better, and so whilst the individual pages are bursting with ideas, overall the issue just doesn’t quite feel substantial. It should be credited though, with having more female artists in a single issue, than DC Comics has employed in the past three years. If nothing else, that makes this worth a purchase.
There are, to be honest, very few things to recommend about DC Comics these days. Their digital series, Adventures of Superman and Legends of the Dark Knight continue to be the best things they publish, and of their print comics, only Wonder Woman now can hold my interest. What a relief then to see Batman: Black & White back on the stands. A non-canonical series of short stories from the best writers and artists, this series allows people to tell the Batman stories they’ve always wanted to, without worrying about continuity. So we get the fantastic Driven from BPRD writer John Arcudi, and incredible artist Sean Murphy (Joe the Barbarian, Punk Rock Jesus), which although comprising of just a car chase, is very well told. We also get art from Daredevil superstar Chris Samnee (illustrating perhaps a less than perfect story from Howard Mackie) which looks better than any other comic DC are currently putting out. It also means we get the completely oddball Batman Zombie, written and drawn by Neal Adams, whose work on the character is as legendary as his awful, awful writing these days. This particular short contains the line “I can’t do…anything…about those socks.” with no hint of irony and comes across as annoyingly preachy and rather insulting. Despite this however, the return of the anthology is a welcome step for a company who are losing fans by the bucketload.
The event comic is a bane in a lot of fan’s lives. Too often the stories come with a high concept premise, fail to deliver much more than pages and pages of punching, and end with nothing more than a to be continued montage of series launching next. They are a marketing tool for new characters, and an editorial tool for shifting useless ones out of the way. Marvel’s last attempt, The Age of Ultron, was a complete mess, and the last big effort they tried, Fear Itself, was marginally worse. Thank god then, for Infinity, which reached the halfway point this week with Avengers #20. The culmination of plot threads from Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers, Infinity is enormous (the cast of characters page for issue one features 50, and that only increases throughout the story). There are two stories playing out in the title at the moment: The Avengers discover an alien race called the Builders who allegedly created life and now seek to destroy it, in the other The Illuminati (a group of superheroes made up of the best minds on Earth) are confronted by Thanos (he of the purple skin and Avengers post-credits scene) who seeks an unknown item hidden on Earth. With the Avengers off planet, fighting the Builders, Earth is left open for an invasion from Thanos and his lieutenants (they have names like Corvus Glaive, and the Ebony Maw, so you know they’re proper evil). It sounds complex, and to be honest, it is. But that isn’t a bad thing. Event comics for too long have been simple punch and kick affairs, and it’s interesting that the fights are the least of Hickman’s concerns. His characters are nuanced, and despite the massive cast, they all sound different. Not only that, but he’s also got the problem of balancing three books: the main Infinity series, Avengers and New Avengers. Infinity covers the main story, whilst Avengers tells the story of their fight to stop the Builders, and New Avengers gives us the Illuminati’s fight against Thanos. It’s simply broken down, and Hickman (who loves his graphic design and clever chapter breaks) even provides a diagram in the back showing the reading order. Yes, there are other crossover titles, but if you stick to the books written by Hickman, you are sure to find yourself in for a proper superhero comic, full of intelligence and storytelling of epic proportions. It would be remiss too not to mention the amazing art, which is being handled by four artists on the series. Lenil Yu draws Avengers, Mike Deodato draws New Avengers, whilst Dustin Weaver and Jerome Opena handle the main series (splitting their duties between the dual stories). All of them are fantastic, and manage to give a coherence to the story, something which is often missing from event comics which are rushed, poorly drawn affairs.
Dark Horse launched a brand new superhero comic this month with Buzzkill, from writers Donny Cates & Mark Reznicek, and artist Geoff Shaw. It’s an intriguing enough concept, with a man who gains superpowers from drinking heavily, going to AA sessions to try and get sober. The plot plays with the concept very well, introducing a group of supervillains who look to exploit the leads alcholism, and former teammates trying to get him back to drinking again. The art too, is excellent: Shaw’s work has a cracking indie sensibility to it and the dotted ink flashbacks give them a strange Archie-esque tinge. Early days for this one, but the (sorry for the pun) buzz around it is strong and well-deserved.
Finally, and perhaps the highlight of the month, we come to Image comics and Prophet #39. Prophet, for those uninitiated, was part of the relaunch of Image Comics 90’s era Extreme Comics. The series is an often convoluted, always strange and consistently excellent space opera and this issue is possibly not just the finest of the series so far, but one of the best single issues of the year. Written by artist/writer Brandon Graham, and featuring art from Graham, Giannis Milonogiannis, Joseph Bergin III, Matt Sheean, Malachi Ward, James Stokoe, Aaron Conley, Jerry Lando, Ron Wimberly, and Simon Roy, the comic has a similar sensibility to Dial E. The story covers the life of cast member Diehard, all 10,000 years of it. In twenty-four pages. It really is quite an achievement. Where Dial E failed to craft a story to hang its wondrous art on, Prophet succeeds admirably. From the uber-violent Manga influenced shades of James Stokoe, to the street art cleanliness of Graham himself, it’s a masterclass in indie comic art. Not only that, but the story is a thing of beauty, clever, funny and very moving, it’s another example of how much further ahead of the competition Image are.