This Week in Comics – August 21, 2019

POWERS OF X #3 – Honestly, tell the truth now- did any of you see this coming? I know Jonathan Hickman has a resume that includes universally-lauded runs on creator-owned work, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. I know he said he was going to completely reshape the X-Men universe for years to come. I know artists selected for the first salvo were branded as certified superstars. But still. Still. Nobody knew it was going to be like this, did they? I sure as hell didn’t. I put POX on the bottom of my read pile this week, like that would somehow dampen it’s energy, blend it in with the other offerings on the shelf. It didn’t. It can’t. It’s something else. And it’s not a slight to the other comics I read this week- to expect this of anything is probably unfair. Sometimes, the stars just align and some magic happens. I’m sure there’s a TON of hard work behind it too…but even so, many work hard without such results. It’s OK to be blown away sometimes. This is one of those times. The disarming thing about HOXPOX is that it’s giving me hope. It’s making me believe in the power of superhero comics again. The ability to tell a story in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else, with all the big, dumb melodrama that goes along with it. For 30-odd years, the X-Men was that soap opera. HOXPOX brings it back. It feels good to be obsessed about mutants again, in a way that feels completely new.

SUPERMAN YEAR ONE #2 – “This is getting very weird…” thinks Clark Kent, as he spars with a baton in boot camp, grinding his way on the road to becoming a Navy SEAL. That dialogue box perfectly captures the feeling of this series. Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr. are two legends of the industry, with accolades and accomplishments that I don’t need to list here. They’ve worked on everything, from Batman and Daredevil to their own creator-owned properties. They’ve even worked together in a similar capacity before, producing the incredible Daredevil: The Man Without Fear miniseries in 1993. Suffice to say, time has passed. Careers have ebbed and flowed, and as the tides would have it, both creators ended up being accessible to DC at the same time and teamed up again to produce an all-new take on perhaps the most famous comic book character in the world, Superman. The project: Superman Year One. On paper, the idea sounds great- JRJR’s dynamic and bold artwork, scripted by Frank Miller, who basically invented the modern “year one” concept with Batman Year One. So why the hell is this so goddamned weird? (Miller style, sorry). I can’t call it “bad”, because I’m utterly fascinated by this book, but weird is inescapable. Every choice happening here is weird. Clark, as we saw in Book 1, is a godlike alien being who grows up in Kansas. And it’s not the idolized non-existent Kansas as a stand in for “middle America”, it’s like, Kansas. Clark talks like a yokel, with lots of darns and what-fors. Miller is a master at creating bizarre, psychologically claustrophobic setting in his stories, driven by a phantom kind of propulsive energy. He knows where he’s going, and it almost bleeds through to the reader that this trajectory is a kind of foregone conclusion. Of course Clark would go off and join the Navy. Of course he’d be weird, this boy from a dead planet who grew up on a farm and going to Wal Mart and listening to Garth Brooks (my guess). The weirdness gets profoundly deep in Book 2, with two-thirds of the issue fully-focused on Clark’s military boot camp experience, which plays out like a tame version of Full Metal Jacket or a Tom Clancy video game. Underneath the oddity of this new introduction to Superman’s story, the core of the character is there. Bizarre as it is to see him done-up in Call of Duty-looking gear, his stomach turns as he sees killing first hand. For him, with his abilities, his gifts- this isn’t the way. The later third of the book incredibly, perhaps clumsily, shifts gears to Atlantis, where we meet a retooled version of Lori Lemaris. For me, Lori was always a goofy bit of Silver Age hangover that would pop up once in a while in Superman books. Mostly harmless, and so very DC. Here, Miller and JRJR seem to use her as a proxy for a chapter in Clarks lost days, the girlfriend from out of town with the cool apartment and the overbearing dad. Sadly, Atlantis looks pretty drab here, and there are big splash pages featuring undersea monsters that feel like they should be awesome, but are just kind of nothing. Sort of like this series. The promise of a new Superman origin story from these two comic titans is pretty exciting. Two chapters into this tale, it’s hard to imagine anyone pulling it off the shelf as the “definitive” intro to Superman’s origins. To me, I think John Byrne’s Man of Steel, published over 30 years ago, feels more modern and fresh than what we’re getting here. Still, if you set the expectations aside, this is a fascinating entry in both Miller and JRJR’s body of work, and feels tremendously darker than you might expect. It has a lot more in common with another comic Miller wrote, Martha Washington Goes to War, than it does with Batman Year One. Like Martha, Clark is from a nowhere kind of place. Martha’s environment is starkly different than Smallville, but still both grow up lonely, isolated, powerful, and extremely driven. The military offers a path out. And forces of darkness creep in at every corner, even as they march on. Darn it all to heck, the heroes are here to give ’em what for.

TRANSFORMERS ’84 #0 – I love Simon Furman’s work. It’s 2019, and the writer is still cranking out crazy adventures of robots in disguise. I don’t read a lot of Transformers comics, but when I see Furman’s name, I jump in. He’s created almost a genre unto himself: a pocket universe where the reader is greeted with familiar faces like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but then almost always thrust away from that familiarity into strangely dark, brutal, and grimy situations in a far-flung galaxy filled with danger. There’s a UK comics vibe to all his Transformers tales, even his stateside work, that just gives them an extra twist. The stories are always skillfully put together, hitting all the bases in terms of robot roll calls and action, balanced with a kind “hard sci-fi” sensibility. These aren’t what most folks expect when they think of a licensed property book. I’m pretty sure Furman’s original UK stuff introduced Death’s Head and had like Doctor Who in it or something. So yeah. It’s like that. This special issue #0 is pitched as a one-shot prequel, exploring the event leading up to Transformers #1 way back in 1984. Artist Guido Guidi, who paired with Furman on the Transformers: Regeneration One series, has the perfect style for this era. He draws Transformers comic the way you wish the old ones had looked when you were a kid. Retro sensibilities but updated in all the right ways, with a dash of fluidity all its own. This one isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a “vintage” (old) Transformers fan and/or familiar with Simon Furman’s particular take on the characters, this is a slice of pure joy.

DEATH’S HEAD #2 – Death’s Head is a longtime favorite character, like Furman’s Transformers, a unique piece of the comic universe spun out of the page of UK books. An intergalactic bounty hunter with a curious speech pattern and a twisted history that includes dying and being transferred into a steroid-pumped cyborg body infused by black magic, Death’s Head has been through a lot over the years. I missed issue 1 of this new miniseries, but grabbed #2 out of curiosity to see what was new in the world of this funky robot. Turns out, his powered-down body had been turned into an amplifier by a teenage punk band. Regain power, and a bit of dignity, Death’s Head ends up hanging with some former Young Avengers. There’s a lot of elements of what made Death’s Head comics of yore fun reads- an irreverent attitude, fun action beats, cool robots with maces. Writer Tini Howard mixes in plenty of old and new, which made me happy, and artist Kei Zama is simply awesome. Really enjoyed their gritty, yet expressive work. The book has the right “metal” feel while still being clean and multifaceted. I’m definitely raiding the back issue bins for issue 1. Fun take on a fun character. Fun!

BATMAN #232 – I bought this reprint edition mostly to bother Dan DiDio! This is the first appearance of Ra’s Al Ghul, and it’s badass. Denny O’Neil is pretty much the ultimate Batman writer/editor, and this issues showcases why. Everything just feels “right” in terms of takes on the characters. Like, this is Batman across the board, a version of the character recognizable to anyone of any age. I’ve never been a huge Neal Adams fan, mostly because I missed his heyday, but I can see why he became a fan favorite in this issue, and also the influences he had on the superstar artists that I grew up with, like Perez, Byrne, Lee, and McFarlane. It’s hard to believe this comic is from 1971. More than holds up today! I hope DC keep cranking these out. I like old movies, old music, and old comics. DC has such a huge vault to draw from, I don’t know why they would ever want to shy from connecting new readers to classic stories. This reprint makes me want to read more from this era. I’d call that a success? (Bonus: Look for a letter from Mike W. Barr on the letters page. He’d later go on to write a ton of Batman stories of his own)