By Molly Jane Kremer, Scott Southard, and Jarrod Jones. Our Week In Review serves to fill in the gaps our frequently verbose comic book coverage leaves behind. Each week, we take a brief look into the books that demand attention.

2015-05-14-astrocityAstro City #23

Vertigo/$3.99

Written by Kurt Busiek.

Art by Brent Eric Anderson; colors by Alex Sinclair.

JJ: Ah, Astro City. Imagine the wonder that comes from the Manhattan of ’60s-era Marvel and couple that with the scale of all the greatest incarnations of DC Comics’ Metropolis, and you’re about halfway there.

And for just about twenty years, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Eric Anderson have been the stewards of this immense (and immersive) burg. Co-created by stalwart artist Alex Ross (the man responsible for those damn beautiful covers), Astro City has consistently churned out thrilling superhero yarns over the span of three volumes and four imprints, remaining astonishingly stable in an industry that has ceaselessly shifted and mutated around it. For people who want reliable, reverent, and above all else, exciting superhero comics, there’s nowhere else you’d want to be.

And for those who’ve perplexingly missed the boat for nearly two decades, let me be the guy to tell you that Astro City #23 is a perfect jump-on issue. Wait. Let’s rephrase that: it’s the perfect jump-on issue, a book that doesn’t bother with daunting recaps of what the reader missed or expository chunks of caption thrown over their heads. It’s the purest form of sequential fiction, and the best part? It stars a talking gorilla named Sticks. And all Sticks wants to do is play the drums.

Because Sticks is new in town, any reader jumping in with #23 gets a tantalizing glimpse into how encompassing Astro City actually is. The book kicks off with a sterling shot of the First Family zooming over the affable gorilla’s head, and it’s here where Busiek imbues his latest creation with a refreshing curiosity. There’s no room for “been there, done that” in Astro City, and Sticks is the kind of character who genuinely wants to soak it all in. That kind of enthusiasm proves to be contagious.

Busiek and Anderson know their comics history through and through, and Astro City is the perfect vessel for their admiration and respect. What’s this? A talking gorilla from a hidden gorilla city? Of course he’s gonna wear a “Fox Broome” t-shirt. It’s those kind of hat tips that make this book such a gem. And if you become compelled to reach back into the volumes that precede this issue, there’s a good chance you may find yourself turning into a permanent resident.

9 out of 10

1420354_xlHoward the Duck #3

Marvel Comics/$3.99

Written by Chip Zdarsky.

Art by Joe Quinones and Joe Rivera; colors by Rico Renzi.

Everything always has to be so serious. You never see anything with any whimsy anymore.
– Comic book store clerk, Re: Howard the Duck #3

SS: It’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in the dire gravity of most comics. Evil-doers hold an unwieldy amount of power that threatens the way we live our daily lives. Good guys face insurmountable odds. The fate of the universe is always hanging somewhere, generally in the balance, and it’s up to our beloved heroes to save the day. Sometimes we just need a breather from all of this funereal sobriety.

Enter Howard the Duck. A master of one liners, a self-referential machine. He’s back and he’s barrelling ahead at near full speed without missing a web-toed step. This fairly new title, written by Chip Zdarsky (who seems to be busy being funny and clever all over the place these days), is a foray into the pitfalls of mediocrity, while maintaining a strong sense of the seemingly overwhelming spectacle that surrounds our brow-beaten protagonist everywhere he goes. It kind of parallels real life in that way, huh?

But this makes it all sound so serious, yet again. Don’t fret. Issue #3 opens with Aunt May (yes, that Aunt May) committing an armed robbery, and eventually strong-arming and knocking out our eponymous hero until he’s running a wild goose chase (pun intended) after the stolen loot. It’s madcap two-page moments like this that Zdarsky manages to string together rather imaginatively that define the book. These moments, coupled with a hefty capacity for broken fourth walls and editor’s notes that justify the direction of the narrative, wind up forming a surprisingly cohesive story, that steadfastly soap-operas its way onward.

But this continuous addition of problem and solution comes across as more than just storytelling for storytelling’s sake. The book chronicles pragmatism, compliance, and a general giving in to the difficulties of everyday life in a way that a lot of other works just can’t. Howard’s Sisyphusian struggles to keep his head afloat never seem to end, and whether it’s trying to thwart an evil geriatric-hypnotist mastermind or trying to pay the rent, the gravity of the situation remains. While Howard might not push the envelope as much as his past self, the current incarnation shows a side of him (and ourselves) that he (and everyone else) needs to constantly monitor and acknowledge. It teaches us to always endure, even if it’s just enduring the banalities of life, and to rise up to one’s potential and be that good person (or fowl) we know we can be. Howard the Duck reminds us that the world isn’t always at stake, and that it’s okay to let a little whimsy into our lives.

8.5 out of 10

STK667311Space Riders #2

Black Mask Studios/$3.99

Written by Fabian Rangel, Jr.

Art by Alexis Ziritt.

MJ: As you’ve probably noticed, there’s a whole buttload of science fiction comics currently in circulation. And, if you’re like me, you’re probably already reading a bunch of them, because, well… sci-fi is a goddamn compelling and multifaceted genre and the galactic reaches of space leave room for epic amounts of innovation and fun. However, a great portion of these comics are more-than-deliberately paced; many also exist within a certain grungy, dusky gloom (one of the few exceptions to that rule being Image’s ODY-C, of course). But then, apart and outstanding from most any comic out there, there’s Black Mask Studios’ Space Riders.

To start with, the art in this comic is stunning: it’s a neon-splashed, Kirby-esque fever-dream. There is no attempt at realism whatsoever: but who needs reality when the visuals spouting forth from artist Alexis Ziritt’s brain are this good? The colors are bright, flat, and vivid; the inks heavy, bold and expressive. The character designs are imaginative as hell: first mate Mono has a Mandrill’s head and a warrior-poet’s heart, lady robot Yara looks like she stepped out of an H.G. Wells tale. And our main protagonist, the hotheaded, hipsterly-coiffed-and-bearded Capitan (yes, it’s Capitan; he specifies in the first issue) Peligro, pilots the Santa Muerte, a ship shaped like a human skull that rockets through space, shooting laser beams from its “eyes”. Ziritt’s art is ridiculously metal and trippy as hell, and I can guarantee you’ll have a hard time tearing your eyes away from his maelstrom.

And though Ziritt’s art is definitely the star of this show, writer Fabian Rangel Jr. has fashioned a bombastic and absorbing tale within and around Ziritt’s acrobatics. In another’s hands this could be total sensory overload — our crew runs into a green-skinned, pink-haired alien wizard woman, a cosmic purple space whale, another spaceship that looks like it stepped right out of The Eternals — but Ziritt’s graphics require a plotline of equal intensity, and Rangel delivers. He also wrote what might be my absolute favorite answer to the eternal question, “How do you like your coffee?” (for your information, the Capitan likes his coffee “like he likes [his] outer space. Black and infinite.”)

My one small complaint about the book would be that it finishes too quickly (despite getting in the same amount of plot as three typical “written for the collection” superhero comics). With a plethora of large, arresting panels and lightning-fast pacing, the issue is over before you know it. But as soon as you finish Space Riders #2, you’re probably going to want to read it again. Please feel free to do so, and revel once more in its frenzied glory. I already have.

9.5 out of 10

1420433_xlHarrow County #1

Dark Horse Comics/$3.99

Written by Cullen Bunn.

Art by Tyler Crook.

SS: Building up a set-piece as a character itself is an age-old literary technique. Faulkner and O’Connor and McCarthy and pretty much every other Southern Gothic author of the the English language has given large roles to the forests, prairies, and small towns of the American heartland in order to convey these places as living beings. Cullen Bunn follows in this tradition (along with some beautifully muted watercolor work from Tyler Crook) in Dark Horse’s Harrow County by giving a dark past to what would otherwise be an average southern farm in Manifest Destiny-era America.

A horror story through and through (the book opens with the hanging and burning of a witch, while a Bible’s words melt from its pages), we follow Emmy on the cusp of her 18th birthday. As she deals with classic coming of age issues, seemingly unprecedented supernatural happenings begin to pop up all around her in the form of dying livestock and powerfully demonic (and arboreal) dreams. There is a load of groundwork laid out in this inaugural issue, where serious thought about the future of the series seems to have always been the creator’s intent. Emmy’s small farm community and it’s past transgressions (i.e. witch killings) are the frame to what’s to come. You can almost parse out the language and imagery that will lead to its (inevitably) terrible future events, but that doesn’t make it simple. The book layers traditional literary approaches one on top of the other, with some elegantly chilling artwork in between, to tell a coming of age story rife with its own closeted skeletons.

We see Emmy’s inner-teenaged-turmoil shown, not told, through a series of minor movements and facial expressions that convey an impressive amount of subtlety and depth to a character we’ve only just met. The variety of ways she looks at her father throughout the book manages to invoke a huge quantity of the very same feelings of neglect, isolation, and all around helplessness that I (and I’m assuming everyone else reading this) felt in my late teen years. As much as this story purports itself to be about the horrific supernatural, it’s delving into the universally human experience of growing up and feeling lost just as zealously.

The narrative leads to Emmy crawling further and further into a woodland labyrinth of brambles and ends with some seriously nightmare-inducing panels. Bunn and Crook are preparing us for what will certainly be a heavy and lengthy affair, balanced between the concretely real and the absolutely unreal. Harrow County‘s potential for terrors to come is great, but it leaves behind enormous room to grow. As the sins-of-our-fathers story continues to unfold, and we’re shown deeper exhibitions of the debts that must be paid, I expect I’ll be compelled to look inside myself for the duration.

8 out of 10

Agree? Disagree? What books did you read this week? Let us know in the comments below.

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