By Molly Jane Kremer, Scott Southard, and Jarrod JonesOur Week In Review collects our thoughts on the comics that demand attention. Do you have a deep-rooted desire to know what we think about all your favorite books? Well. This is where you need to be.

TheBeauty_01-1The Beauty #1

Image Comics/$3.50

Written by Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley.

Art by Jeremy Haun; Color by John Rauch.

SS: There’s a balance most of us must strike with the world in the way we perceive it. We are forced to make decisions on how much value we place on outward appearance compared to the inner-composition that makes up a much larger part of who a person is. Obviously, we all know that the skin-deepness of exterior beauty is fairly empty and that the true depth of inner qualities is what matters, but that doesn’t stop people from employing their appearance as a dominant factor in nearly every facet of life (not to mention a patriarchal society putting even larger and broader demands on the appearances of women). I tell myself that I exercise to stay healthy, but if we’re being completely honest, a large motivator is to control the way I look, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Clearly there’s a disconnect between the truths of beauty’s veneer and the way we allow it to function interpersonally, and it’s important to assess and reassess these value-based structures regularly.

Well, in Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley’s long-incubated The Beauty, it appears we have a strong reminder. STD-based fiction has a solid lineage (has anything ever opened the pit of your stomach wider than Black Hole?), and in this inaugural issue, we’re introduced to an America that’s “plagued” by such disease. This one, however, causes transformations in victims that make them physically attractive, handing out squared jaws and flat stomachs. It’s a straightforward STD in that regard, but it’s divided the country into two distinct camps. Half of the population has it and half does not and actively despises it. And when one carrier spontaneously combusts on a crowded subway car, society is forced to begin an evaluation of the disease on a more acute level.

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Let’s get a simple, redundant sentence out of the way: The Beauty #1 is a beautiful book. It’s stupid how pretty the cover is (and holy hell, did Jenny Frison and Kevin Wada do a stunning job on the variants as well). The majority of the content has a classic comic feel, but there’s also the feeling that Haun was secretly revelling in this great excuse to draw a million hot characters in one book. There’s a guilty pleasure in basking in the swaths of attractiveness in this book, and ITS ALL OK BECAUSE EVERYONE IS PERFECT LOOKING. Not only does that make The Beauty an easy sell, but it also adds to the impact that comes with its fleeting moments of ugliness (i.e. the combusted woman’s shattered face). Horror is always more horrific with some contrast.

Something as obvious as a critique on beauty standards might seem superfluous, but there’s more than just surface level criticism at play here. I’m unsure to what depths The Beauty will delve into societal structures or gendered oppression, but there’s plenty of space to spread, and it looks like we’re on the right track. Any book that forces the readership to check their own value systems or to realign their actions with their beliefs has importance in the canon of comics. The Beauty asks us to evaluate our own vanity and vapidity as we actively navigate a world dominated by surface level appraisals of worth. Now and again, we need to look in the mirror and then consciously smash it to pieces.

9 out of 10

Phonogram1_cvrPhonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1

Image Comics/$3.99

Written by Kieron Gillen.

Art by Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson.

MJ: There’s no denying it, music is magic. People use it to define or lose themselves; to get pumped up or to calm down; to forget or to remember; to feel emotion or to numb it. Phonogram has always been about how music affects our lives and what exactly it does (or what we let it do) to ourselves, and in The Immaterial Girl, Kieron Gillen shows us music’s power to transform, and the price that eventually comes with it.

Emily Aster has been a sharp but lingering presence in the two previous volumes of Phonogram, but was never the story’s focus—only a supporting player, and an enigmatic one at that. Immaterial Girl finally begins to reveal her story: sad goth girl Claire more than fleetingly wished to be someone else, and so traded half of her personality (to an entity we haven’t yet met) for power, style, and a scathingly sexy new persona named Emily. Eight years on, Emily has second thoughts, and Claire takes a chance for freedom. Her double-edged trade (and her aversion to mirrors) was mentioned all the way back in Rue Brittania, but seeing her motivations and their repercussions elucidated upon makes for a compelling read.

Viewing the whole series from its beginning, the evolution of Jamie McKelvie’s art is lovely to behold (especially with the recent-ish addition of Matthew Wilson on colors). The increased nuances in facial expressions, striking angles of perspective, and the ending’s beautifully sketchy homage to A-Ha’s “Take On Me” video show two artists undoubtedly at the height of their craft. In a flashback to Emily—er, Claire’s childhood and her bright-eyed consumption of music videos, Wilson alternates between the faded-oranges of a polaroid, and the soft blues and bright whites of the television’s fuzzy glow.

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The cleverly titled “B-Sides”, consisting of a few extra pages of content after the issue’s main story, include the usual glossary (in case you just have to know if that was in fact a Peaches song being referenced) and two quick short stories written by Gillen, with art by Sarah Gordon and Clayton Cowles & Kelly Fitzpatrick respectively. The short stories are by turns touching and funny, but the glossary especially (along with Gillen’s typically endearing letter column ramblings) is what truly makes this book feel like a warm, friendly, and subjectively informative welcome into Gillen’s private (and undoubtedly massive) record collection.

Like the two previous volumes, The Immaterial Girl feels intensely autobiographical (and Gillen has always admitted as much about the series); but like Phonogram‘s previous volume, The Singles Club, The Immaterial Girl has a broad (and deep) enough scope to go past the music discussed (delightful as it is) and into those discussing it. Because deep down, talking about music – just like talking about any other art you love – is talking about yourself.

9 out of 10

1436724_xl (1)Howard the Duck #5

Marvel Comics/$3.99

Written by Chip Zdarsky.

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

JJ: *sighs* You guys! I love Howard the Duck. *tsks*

What I love most about Howard the Duck — apart from the fact that it’s a comic book about a damn talking duck — is that it can make me laugh out loud like no other comic book in recent memory. Howard’s plight as a sardonic quasi-hero isn’t delivered in a wry, frenetic burst of clever vignettes; it’s not even employed as a chortle-worthy commentary on contemporary urban life. It’s a full-on, feathers-to-the-wall private dick story contained entirely in the quickly dissipating Earth-616.

Yeah, Secret Wars is making Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones reset their quacky book back to #1 (a fact that likely annoys the creative team as much as it does their readership), and the landscape of the Marvel Universe will look just a little different next time Howard pokes his beak in our faces. But as superhero sendoffs go, Howard the Duck #5 is about as fun as it gets.

Allow me to share with you, if I may, some examples of Zdarsky’s patented irreverence, which just might make you smile, roll your eyes, or — here’s hoping — both:

  • I love you.” “Yeah this seems to line up with what I know about love.”
  • Howard! Get back here, ya putz! you owe me sixty smackers!
  • Wreckage! My greatest enemy!
  • Hey! All-New Captain America! Down here!
  • No glove, no love!” — if only because it confirms that Howard has seen Booty Call.

But you know what else is great about Howard the Duck? It’s the least pretentious book you’ll ever read. Whatever angst or animosities exist in the way-too serious Avengers comics, Howard the Duck #5 assembles a good portion of Manhattan’s superhero population and jettisons the “grown-up” artifice for some patented Marvel mayhem. (The clean-up splash page, where Doctor Strange sweeps detritus into another dimension, She-Hulk hoists a dumpster with ‘Zdarsky’ spray-painted all over it, and Spider-Man gives Johnny Storm a hug, is one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a Marvel comic for a long while.)

As far as the legitimately surprising Tara reveal: I have no idea whether this turn of events was a methodically planned revelation, or if Quinones just couldn’t keep all of her damn tattoos straight, but it works. Tara’s a Skrull. But Zdarsky is writer enough to make sure when she’s outed as such, it’s handled with more grace, care, and love than when Jean Grey went poking around Bobby Drake’s brain earlier this year. Plus, it includes a shout to Skrull Kill Krew, which, if you’ll pardon the hyperbole, is completely awesome. (That book is a woefully underrated gem.)

For a book about a waddling, tail-feathered grump, Howard the Duck has a surprising amount of depth and soul to it. Now get out there and tell it to the world!

8.5 out of 10

1450202_xlKing Tiger #1

Dark Horse Comics/$3.99

Written by Randy Stradley.

Art by Doug Wheatley; Colors by Rain Beredo.

SS: Sometimes it’s just pleasant to see a comic book take itself seriously on its own terms. Obviously, a boat load of comics take themselves seriously, many of them far too much (I thought about making a short list, but then it turned into a long list that wasn’t so much a list but a straight-up roll-call of currently published superhero comics). But comics that treat themselves, rather than their subject matter, with the reverence and respect that modern literature or other high art gets aren’t easy to spot.

So when Stradley and Wheatley took on this new project, I don’t know that anyone paid much notice. I mean, we’re looking at a fairly minor character from the Dark Horse universe headlining a finite four-part series put together by the Star Wars guys (and they did Star Wars for, like, ever). The momentum behind it isn’t breaking physical laws of science.

However! Stradley and Wheatley DID take this book seriously and clearly put thought and care into the creation of an artifact that will give a very loveable character some legitimate spotlight time. Where their diligence and consideration comes into play most is the attention to structure and simple storytelling beyond good guy vs. bad guy and instanced arcs of drama.

An opening monologue from the narrator warns against the dangers of hope and continues, urging the reader and all of humanity to “run to the inevitable doom that awaits them.” This same, illusive narrator picks up at the end of the issue with, “Hope is humanity’s great weakness.” Not only does this bleak realism frame the entirety of the issue, but it lays out a thematic mantra for the next three issues to explore more thoroughly alongside the drama of some superhero fight sequences.

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As far as the basics go, we’re looking at some straightforward superhero stuff. King Tiger is an established badass with mysterious links to a hefty knowledge of magic and some deeply honed combat skills. The first few scenes set up a standard hero-sidekick relationship between King Tiger and Milo immediately, going as far as to make Milo a literal weapon caddie, complete with a golf bag full of guns and swords. The first issue lightly relies on the backstory told in Ghost, but remains fairly accessible to newcomers, making reference to Tiger’s previous accomplishments, parsing out his superhuman abilities, and acknowledging his deliberately shrouded origins.

Much of this exposition takes place in Tiger’s kitchen, as his lover, Rikki, unloads the bulk of the recapitulation. This is also where the nuance and thoughtfulness of the art begins to truly shine. From the onset, it’s apparent that Doug Wheatley is a madman with pens, as the dynamic realism of the people and the overdrawn minutiae of household objects draws the eye to each line and detail in the frame. He also clearly enjoys messing with perspective as we get a shot from within the cupboard sandwiched between a long close-up of two hands and a panorama of the entire kitchen. It’s all very inventive and doesn’t settle on standard shots or simplifying tropes.

Which is a telling facet about the whole of the work. Effort has gone into all of King Tiger to make a conceptual work rather than a four-part miniseries. The story not only follows a compelling arc and plans for the future, but it also follows a thematic design from beginning to end. The well rounded and fully formed narrative structure is a strong foundation for what’s next. This is just the first issue, but if they can manage to hold it all together with a strong tonal consistency, King Tiger could go from a fun little romp for a nice hero to something with a resonance that hits folks at their core.

8 out of 10

1449939_xlBatman #43

DC Comics/$3.99

Written by Scott Snyder.

Art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki; colors by FCO Plascencia.

JJ: For the last two issues of Batman, I’ve found it difficult to shake this feeling that the book’s newfound optimism was only pages away from bottoming out. How could this vibrant new order sustain itself in a place like Gotham City? I mean, this is Batman we’re talking about. You want optimism? Take a hike to Metropolis.

And yet Batman, in its current form, is a book that’s become, well… fun. Bruce Wayne’s dark night of the soul had been laid to rest, maybe forever, and reading each successive page without him made it feel like what we were experiencing was the work of a creative team not only revitalized by Wayne’s ultimate sacrifice, but untethered to the angst he brought to the proceedings. The book felt lighter, and somehow, more daring than it had ever been before.

This uncharted path has allowed Snyder the space with which to hone his instincts as a storyteller, but the presence of the Batman, in all his monstrous glory, still casts long shadows in his mind. Which makes perfect sense. Snyder is, after all, a man who earns a living writing about pledged sacrifices, creatures that lurk in the deep, and institutionalized vampirism (subtextual and otherwise). It’s only right that we allow Snyder to sound the organ pipes that dwell from the inner recesses of his mind. He’s a horror writer, and Batman has been, for the most part, a comic book imbued by the horrific. (The book’s villain, Mr. Bloom, is certainly influenced by Snyder’s sinister inclinations as much as he is by Capullo’s knack for bringing those inclinations to life.)

However, we should be at a point where everyone can feel comfortable reading a Batman story without Bruce Wayne, at least for a little while. But from the very beginning (or, if I can be less dramatic, since issue #41) the ominous spectre of the former playboy billionaire has dogged the book, and raised as many eyebrows as it has glaring distractions from the almost gleeful adventures of Jim Gordon, Dark Knight. Three chapters into “Superheavy”, and we have taken an inevitably drastic turn. For the better? That remains to be seen. Right now, I’m kinda dizzy.

Because, as it stands, I can’t tell which Batman Batman is supposed to be about. Can there can be both? Absolutely, but when most of an issue is dedicated to explaining the science behind Bruce Wayne’s unfathomable return (using Dionesium, Snyder’s deus ex machina to end all deus ex machinas) instead of focusing on the man trying to keep Gotham safe, well. It starts feeling less like a Batman comic and more like a surreal, Fincher-esque soap opera. The hazy aura surrounding Wayne’s return is not wildly out of place in Snyder’s complicated saga, but it does serve to disrupt the flow of the story it’s trying to tell. You’d never think it could be possible, but yeah: Bruce Wayne is the least interesting thing about Batman.

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It’s all in the disorienting flashback sequence cushioned towards the beginning of this issue. As we listen to Alfred regale Superman (of all people) with the incredible story of Bruce’s return, his tale can only partially ring true (even as a blank slate Wayne still wants to help people, which is a far cry from the man who apparently spent his off hours inventing a ridiculous Bat-cloning device on the sly). It’s a story so long and daunting that Superman actually grows a five o’clock shadow by the time it’s done. (Double check the Man of Steel’s baby-faced introduction and then compare it to the pages that follow; you’ll see Capullo brought that stubble in record time.)

Snyder’s elaborate exploration as to how Wayne survived all that was done to him in Endgame is perplexing enough, but squeezing in animosities between Alfred and Superman, um, chops the book into two totally separate halves: on one side we have Gordon delving deeper into the mystery surrounding Mr. Bloom, and the other we’re given a demented ode to a father’s responsibility to his son. (Seeing Alfred brandish a Kryptonite ring to prove a point to Superman, only to have the two carry on as if nothing ever happened moments later, is definitely on my list of “most baffling things to ever happen in Batman“.)

This story isn’t three issues in, and already it’s suffering from a tonal imbalance. Is Batman a thundering superhero yarn or a chilling psychodrama? Can it be both? Well. There’s only so much space found in between.

7.5 out of 10

26610Harrow County #4

Dark Horse Comics/$3.99

Written by Cullen Bunn.

Art by Tyler Crook.

SS: Nothing is more satisfying than a story that has a bit of patience. To take the time to build and pace a backstory we care about takes some guts. And to maintain stakes worth believing in is something that many new books can gloss over in a single issue, afraid that the reader won’t lend attention long enough to stretch anything out. It’s a reasonable misgiving, as the market is constantly flooded with new material, not to mention the enormity of distractions and entertainments provided by other mediums. So when something takes its time and rolls out the carpet meticulously, it feels bigger and better than just another book on the shelf.

Cullen Bunn’s Harrow County might be the closest thing comics has to high literature. With wonderfully descriptive metaphors and themes surrounding the part of life that comes just after “coming of age,” the book remains hearty with rich imagery. We’ve watched protagonist, Emmy, grow so quickly in the first three issues, and through these rapid (and frightening) installments we discover a fully-formed character attempt to grapple with her identity and what it means to deal with an uncontrollable past as a currently autonomous entity in the present.

Of course there are fantastical obstacles she runs into throughout the story, but Emmy’s ceaseless confidence shines through the lines that separate good and evil, child and adult, past and present in a very human and pratical manner. This all takes place, of course, within the surreal confines of the gorgeous work by Tyler Crook, who seems incapable of making a single panel without imbuing an awful beauty to it. I can’t think of a better use for this man’s talents than a countrified horror drama where we all feel shitty in the end.

Which is where we leave Emmy. As she settles the initial drama of the book, we’re provided flashes of her future as a powerful woman. Without context, the narrative that gets her there is opaque, but it seems natural that a woman of her constitution would end up succeeding. She was built as a hero from the start, and we were given enough time to believe it. Now we’ll see what she does with that strength.

8.5 out of 10

1449953_xlDC Comics Bombshells #1

DC Comics/$3.99

Written by Marguerite Bennett.

Art by Marguerite Sauvage.

MJ: It seems like such a great (and obvious) idea, especially in this shiny new DCU multiverse: take a statue line that has already achieved cult-like status among fans, add two acclaimed up-and-coming creators, and let them take it in an intriguing, ingenious direction. DC’s Bombshells began as a series of incredibly popular DC Collectibles statues designed by artist Ant Lucia, rendering all of its popular superheroines as modernized pin-ups. After scads more merchandise and last year’s “Bombshell variant” month—which is currently happening again—a dedicated comic series was the next logical step.

DC giving a popular line of statue line its own comic series isn’t unheard of. 2012 saw Ame-Comi Girls (also digital-first), which featured gorgeous art from Amanda Conner, Ted Naifeh, and others. But unlike Ame-Comi’s lady-heroes-only premise, Bombshells is an alternate history superhero story, set in 1940 in the midst of WWII. Written by Marguerite Bennett, with art by Marguerite Sauvage (presumably making Bombshells’ editorial emails as confusing as Southern Bastards’ must be), they’ve taken a story that could have been played for fluffy laughs, and offered up real depth and character building between the action and adventure.

The three-part story, originally released online as separate chapters, are each focused on different characters in as-yet completely unrelated situations. Batwoman rescues the Wayne family from a certain mugger on the first page (a great twist on both her and Batman’s origins), and is a lady professional baseball player (à la A League Of Their Own) by day, a bat-wielding vigilante by night. Wonder Woman gets the most traditional treatment in the second chapter, as she and her fellow Amazons defend Themiscyra from a midair dogfight above. The third chapter sees Stargirl and Supergirl (their names are Kortni and Kara) as young Soviet trainee-pilots.

Marguerite Bennett has been developing a more distinctive voice and finessing her work with each comic she releases (especially now that she’s getting more credited solo gigs than co-writing). Bombshells is by turns exciting, lyrical, suspenseful, and sweet, with more historical references than one could have hoped for. The Night Witches – a Russian squad of lady fighter pilots that actually existed – play an important role in the Stargirl/Supergirl segment. One happy “historical inaccuracy” resides in depicting (neither trumpeting nor glossing over) Batwoman’s sexuality and relationship with police officer Maggie Sawyer. It’s simply treated as it should be: normal. Within the WWII setting, Bennett makes the entire book a delicious, gender-bent riff on Golden Age comics–an era that has been completely and sorely missing from DC’s continuity for years.

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Marguerite Sauvage grounds this book in gorgeously detailed historical context, giving each character era-accurate (and individually unique) hairstyles, including some rendered waves and pin curls that would make any 40’s starlet madly jealous. The Amazons are drawn wearing the traditional Greek exomis layered over variations of the usual Wonder Woman banded bustier (the traditional depiction of Amazons baring one breast—or chopping one off—probably won’t be seen in a DC comic any time soon). Her fashion designs are both era correct and eye-catchingly lovely, from Kortni and Kara’s dress-uniforms, to Officer Sawyer’s fetching Hepburn-esque ensemble.

Some digital-first DC comics are laid out in a method obviously intended for iPads, and once in print, pages can look like two separate horizontal sections haphazardly stuck on top of each other. Bombshells avoids these pitfalls, certainly due to the strengths of Sauvage, who makes these limitations invisible. Her colors too are vibrant and nuanced, flitting easily from an aerial battle in a cloud-filled, lightning-laced Mediterranean sky, to the bold reds of a Moscow sunrise.

Whether it’s because of their retro-sexy-yet-sex-positive look, or because of the incredible cosplay-ability of their costumes (at any comic convention you may attend, chances are you’ll see cosplayers dressed as Diana the Riveter, or Jet-Pack-Bubble-Gum Hawkgirl), the Bombshells concept and look isn’t going anywhere, and this book should help cement its place within DC’s roster. A book so full of strong, agency-filled female characters, both drawn and written by women, is still rare enough to merit notice. But when it’s this good, too? That’s a cause for celebration.

8.5 out of 10

Agree? Disagree? Which comics do YOU want us to cover this week? Let us know in the comments below.

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