Two For #1: December 2012A comic review article by: Jamil Scalese, Keith Silva, Daniel Elkin
''Every comic book is someone's first comic book.''
-- The eighth of Chuck Dixon's Ten Commandments for comic book scriptwriting.
If you read comic books there's a very good chance you read a lot of #1s … a lot. On any given Wednesday there are about ten bazillion new series launched and in a highly competitive market it's tough to wade through them all.
That's where the team of Silva and Scalese come in. Every month Keith and Jamil will each pick a #1 issue from the previous month to review. Two writers, two number ones, hence the very clever title, "Two for #1." Or Twofers if we're feelin" lazy.
When it comes to comic book criticism the only thing more exciting than two nerds bullshitting about comics is when three nerds bullshit about comics, so each month a Mystery Date will select their own premiere issue, you know, to spice things up a bit.
The point is to tell you whether these new comics are worth a damn, and we'll give our suggestions on whether you should Get 2, Get It, or Forget It altogether.
Caligula: Heart of Rome #1 (of 6)
(David Lapham, German Nobile; Avatar Press)
Jamil: We have a vision.
The comics world can be confusing. For me, walking into the LCS is an overwhelming experience to say the least. There are new comics, slightly older comics, real old comics, comics in trade, comics with variant covers, comix, zines, ashcans, annuals and omnibuses.
Keith and I are trying to tackle a small but central sliver of comicdom by sifting through premiere issues each month. Any #1 counts and we're focusing on letting you, the loyal reader, know which new series deserve a look at #2. (Yo, Marvel, you're kind of disqualifying yourself with all the double shipping!)
I could not think of a more perfect comic to debut our column about debuts than Caligula: Heart of Rome #1. You should not eat, or ever plan to, before reading this little gem by David Lapham and German Nobile. Like Caligula last year, this sequel is, I have to say, some of the most fucking violent comics I've ever read.
I'm in no way a big horror guy but I do appreciate horror with a purpose. What I am a fan of is classical studies and literature and the first series featured a surprisingly accurate storyline, even if the true concentration was demons, gruesome murder and a rapist horse.
Before I go on I need a reaction from you, Keith, brother-in-arms. Did Heart of Rome completely offend you, tickle your curiosities or make you reach for the shredder? I completely understand not wanting to have this book in a house where young children sleep.
Keith: So, this is how you get your kicks, huh, Scalese? Filth. Sick filth like Caligula: Heart of Rome, huh? God bless you, sir.
I was more confused than disgusted or shocked by the opening splash page -- and, oh, does it ever make a splash -- and then I realized those are legs lashed to the side of that flayed human head and the ribcage has been inverted. It's an image you want to linger over. I'll admit, at first glance, I also missed the cock and balls, gross anatomy to be sure.
I am a horror guy, maybe not this kind of horror per se; I mean not even Lovecraft (Barker, maybe) would think about putting a hand where a penis should go or a penis where one would expect to find a transverse colon that is besides the point.
Lapham knows how to get a reader's attention and I'm not talking about the T&A or the pornographic violence. Caligula: Heart of Rome is a detective story and it's a bloody compelling one to boot. Laurentius, the main character, is a good man, an ugly S.O.B in a dirty dirty world full of demons, degenerates and hangers-on.
You're right, Jamil, this isn't an "all ages" book and, yes, I will keep it away from the kids (and the wife), far far far away. You've read Caligula, the series this series is based on, how does Caligula: Heart of Rome measure up? Do you think it (ahem) kills as much as I do?
Jamil: Succinctly: hell yes, this is a satisfying follow-up to the first series.
It's probably prudent to point out that after that disgustingly beautiful opening splash (I missed the cock and balls the first time, also) Lapham throws us a curve on page two. In Caligula, Laurentius functioned as a secondary character, only appearing in half the issues. The perspective firmly belonged to Junius, or "Felix," the olive farmer who shows up at the end of this #1.
The switch from supernatural vengeance tale to detective story kicks the sequel into another gear. Laurentius acts as a familiar vehicle in an unfamiliar Rome. He's a rough ex-vet asked to track a special criminal by a person you don't say "no" to. That's a pretty standard big Hollywood movie plotline, but the world around it is decadent and delectable. Lapham and Nobile's twisting of history, and of the human body, continues to make for a great read even if the title character was stabbed to death in the previous installment. I've really appreciated Lapham's Marvel stuff, but this is his best work to date, fo sho.
The same for German Nobile, essentially a newbie to the industry; his fully painted work gives Caligula a "brush and canvas" look, and everything from roaring arenas to Italian architecture and strong soldiers look lively and complete. But, holy shit Keith, the baby arm for a dick/abdomen-mouth with a penis for a tongue? After I laughed my ass off in fear and confusion I wondered if you would shut down Two for #1 before it started on grounds of not wanting to collaborate with a psychopathic degenerate. I'm so glad we're both a little sick in the head.
Keith: Oh, this is a Get It from me, "fo sho" as you would say. I'm glad you mentioned Nobile's painting. Painted comics can be a hit or miss when it comes to the artist being able to maintain a plausible sequential flow and here Nobile excels. The gladiatorial combat sequence is gorgeous (FYI I bought the wraparound cover) and it's gorier and grosser than anything else in this book and yes, I'm including the baby arm" sequence. Baby Arm!
Mara #1 (of 6)
(Ming Doyle, Brian Wood, Jordie Bellaire; Image)
Keith: The opening pages of Mara demonstrate Brian Wood's moxie. You can smell the jingoism and taste the cynicism in phrases like "military battle contracts," "class divisions" and "corporate involvement." Wood's world-view hasn't slackened since Channel Zero. He's mellowed (maybe), but as a creator he still wants to "MAKE THEM LISTEN" Jennie 2.5 style.
Unlike Jennie 2.5, Mara Prince works from the inside. Mara is a brand, a commodity, a product. She knows it and she exploits her Mara-ness in ways that would make CEOs and CFOs leverage, leverage, leverage. Mara's no celebrity shill, no media chump. What she is Brian Wood's best hack. And yes, she (and he) "MAKE THEM UNDERSTAND."
Mara builds a believable world where sport, intergovernmental energy concerns, the military, and something called the "grand colonial heritage fund" find purchase and it all comes out looking like … volleyball. It's like Ice-T says: "Don't hate the playa, hate the game." I do wonder, in the future (in "the city''), how, exactly, our benevolent corporate overlords will sell us on pan-global volleyball as the one true opiate of the masses, sounds like a job for marketing.
Jamil: Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down, Keith! You're dipping into all type of references that I'm clueless about. This my first Brian Wood joint, mi amigo, and I'm just getting warmed up to the whole Wood craze that I've heard all my comic friends talking about.
As you point to in your first sentence, you know what type of story you're getting in the initial pages and it's really not at all laborious to get into the story. The setting is familiar though distinct in its own right, a culture ruled by sports fanaticism whipped into patriotic frenzy by "Big Brother." The ruling parties use this culture of celebrity, national pride and zeal for mass enlistment, conquest and the like.
At the center is beautiful and popular Mara, a sexy role model with a killer jump serve. I agree completely when you say that Brian Wood and Ming Doyle successfully build a believable world, and even though there are a whole bunch of captions filled with exposition Wood's grace with the pen and Ming's skill with the pencil really make the whole thing flow quite sufficiently.
Mara and its tone swacks you in the face like a rouge volleyball, it's apparent this is a comic that is out to say something. At this point I'm just a tiny confused about what the major conflict will be and honestly, what the fuck was going on at the end. Sometimes I tend to read too much into things and miss the broadstrokes but whatever the hell happened Doyle at least made it look rad. So, I ask using a reference I'm unable to really appreciate -- MAKE ME UNDERSTAND, Keith.
Keith: Jamil, sorry, I meant to show you my die-cast B.W.A.S (Brian Wood Appreciation Society) decoder ring before we got started. Jennie 2.5 is from Wood's first joint, Channel Zero or CZ if you're one of the chosen. I can see CZ's DNA in Mara, but each is unique, its own thang as you might say. I'm not sure how "rad" Doyle got at the end and (like you) I'm not sure what it will mean moving forward. Doyle gods Mara up with chiseled features that provide an edginess and weight to her lithe 17-year-old frame. Doyle's art excels in the quiet moments, when Mara is off-stage; the full page splash of her alone in the locker room feels intense, solemn. The other image that needs to be singled out shows Mara in full: the icon, the inspiration, she is Venus fully formed sans shell, volleyballs orbit her arrival like zephyrs.
Doyle deserves praise, ditto colorist Jordie Bellaire. For me, the dash each shows in the first half of the issue ebbs toward the end. The scenes of Mara in competition are too few and not near as dynamic as when Doyle sets Mara apart from the crowd. Bellaire uses a limited color palette to portray the games themselves which provides a very flat almost monochromatic aspect -- surely the manufacturers of "infinite definition" (to say nothing of those watching on "Telebravo uplink'') would demand more color and more of a spectacle.
Jamil: It's certainly a very pallid story. The brightest tone might be the candy stripe red Bellaire uses for the big sports arena scenes. As a whole, the art is pretty decent, it gets the point across and sets up this vaguely dystopian world who worships sports stars and values celebrity to the point of joining the military.
I agree that Ming Doyle's art is far better in the less action heavy moments, particularly when we're getting to know Mara off the court. The visuals are lacking a little bit of atmosphere. The world is presented well, and by the end of this first issue I got a good idea of the tone Wood is trying to set up, but there is not much that is truly distinct about the visual aspect of Mara.
It's a good start, it lays the foundation, gives you an likeable main character and even the start of a conflict, but in the terms of the latter, I need a lot more. What am I reading about here? What exactly is Mara doing at the end? Is there a main antagonist, or does the satellite we see on the last page represent a slightly indefinable villain? Is this comic about the puppet or the puppeteers? Does Mara even see the strings?
A great first issue, but with most limited series I find myself a little apprehensive about diving in head first into. I say Mara is a pretty strong Get It, but you might also want to sit back and wait for the trade since I'm unable to tell you what the central point of conflict is.
Keith: Wood has banked enough good will with me to trust him as a creator. Doyle's work is game and Bellaire is fast becoming one of my favorite colorists. Wood always has a plan and what he does next with this super woman will determine if Mara can take care of business. We agree. As first issues go this is not the best; however, I'm in. Get 2, if for no other reason than it's an Image book and (probably) had a short print run.
Mystery Date Daniel Elkin's Pick:
The Hollows #1 (of 4)
(Chris Ryall, Sam Kieth; IDW)
Daniel Elkin: After finishing reading The Hollows #1, I was left with the sense that Chris Ryall and Sam Kieth had a lot in mind when they started this series. It seemed like they knew they had something important they wanted to say about large themes and, with giddy excitement, had found a perfect vehicle in which to convey it.
The problem, at least for me, is that they chose to share these expansive themes in a four issue mini-series. The problem with that, at least for me, is that within the confines of this narrow narrative everything is rushed and there is little room for transitions or subtlety. I mean here in The Hollows we've got classism, ecological collapse, poetry, and family. There's ideas of community, religion, and basic human kindness. There's angels and demons, adults and children, nature and technology. And more. And more.
Like I said, there seems to be a lot going on. Maybe even too much. I felt like I had spent 15 minutes benching twice my own weight by the time I was done with its 22 pages. I'm not sure if I liked that feeling. A matter of fact, I'm not sure I liked this comic.
Then again, all that aside, there's Sam Kieth's art, which almost makes up for just about any fault a comic can have. I love the effortlessness of a Sam Kieth panel, its airiness, its dreamlike quality. And maybe it's the lightness of Kieth's art in juxtaposition with the weight of Ryall's big ideas that adds a further layer of cardio to the mix. I'm not sure I have the stamina to go to this gym again.
Which is kind of embarrassing to admit on a first date …
Jamil: Don't worry, Elk, it makes you all the more charming.
Just like most days at the gym I needed a good warm-up period with The Hollows #1 before I started getting into it. Between Ryall's big ideas and Kieth's wicked art this is a hefty pill to try and squeeze down. I left the first issue without a great sense of what to be looking for in the future.
The creative team does manage to present us with a huge, intricate post-apocalyptic world where the privileged live in a metropolis built into a giant tree and those on surface of Earth are hunted by soul-sucking demons called "Hollows". The concept is even more convoluted than that, and by time we meet main character Craig-san, his fight suit and a cast of scavengers from the underworld we're left with a story that can go anywhere.
My first thought after finishing was something like "no friggin' way this is a limited series." It barely sets up the premise in the first twenty-plus pages, which is (if I had to guess) some type of warped slant on the superhero genre. I liked it, but with two very inventive, atypical creators it might be a little much for a first issue.
Keith: The Hollows holds nothing for me either, other than I want to live in a Sam Kieth genetically engineered tree city and, O.K., maybe a pair of those wings, maybe. The grimy vibe smacks of a Philip K. Dick dystopia crossed with every post-doom-and-gloom yarn that wants to hint at zombies, but, not call the zombies zombies.
This is the first comic I've read by Ryall and probably the last. The narrative voice is uneven and, like the story itself, all over the place. Haiku-like lines like "the abandoned world" and "Some. Not ALL" get shoehorned between fat chunks of pulp like: "THE HOLLOWS! Radioactive, burnt-out husks who are drawn to consume the life-energy of the living!" The dialogue is heavy on direction -- "Someone's coming from above" -- and light on character. Ryall leaves it up to Kieth to draw the difference between the haves and have-nots.
Lani, she with the hair bun and bandage over her eye and Craig, he with the receding hairline ponytail look and, lest we forget, sweet wings, are a classic mismatched duo in all the most hackneyed ways, it's only a matter of time before he helps her and she starts singing the theme song to the Jeffersons.
Kieth's cartooning is the best thing about this comic, but even that goes limp in places, sometimes his scratchy/sketchy conveys energy and other times it looks undone. Kieth's design for the Hollows is only creepy in the way that blobs with mouths without teeth (or with teeth, Kieth can't decide) look, their definition lies in the fact they are undefined.
So, The Hollows (ahem) doesn't ring true and yet, as you both point out, there are some big ideas here that could develop from overbearing to stately, maybe something with the majesty of a genetically engineered tree to house whole cities; I'd be at home with that.
Silva says Forget it.
Elkin: You would think I would have grown accustomed to rejection. There may be more fish in the sea, but I seem to be swimming with the sharks.
I guess it comes down to a matter of faith here ultimately. Do you have faith that Chris Ryall and Sam Kieth have the chops to pull off something brilliant in the end, and, like a hopeless romantic dial The Hollows #2's number and suggest perhaps going to a film and then dinner, drinks, or dancing? Or are you a pragmatist and don't have the time or the emotional fortitude to end up disappointed again (and again, and again)?
Or maybe there's a third option, the one that falls in the empty space between hope and cynicism. Maybe you give The Hollows one more chance and if the sparks don't fly over the bruschetta and pinot, abandon it in the parking lot then, upon arriving home, update your dating profile by eliminating the part where you had added "Interested in post-apocalyptic stories with religious overtones and ecological browbeating.”
Elkin says, "One More Time"
Jamil: Too much is spent setting a whole thing up. Not only is this post-apocalyptic, swirling in elements of science and fact, but it's also supernatural and fantastical. Just a weird, confusing mix of ideas and themes.
We reviewed three miniseries this month for Twofers and at the end of this I'm starting to feel like most minis shouldn't be released issue by issue and instead housed in graphic novel form. I know there are extremely pragmatic reasons for most companies choosing to forgo OGNs in favor of 20-page morsels, but with something like The Hollows, which chooses to root itself in nothing familiar, I think we all feel that there is too much going on and not enough there for us to come back.
It might read far better when it is completed, but for right now I'm going to say Forget It. I was real excited to read this when I read the solicit, but it's too ambitious, and this is coming from a group of guys who hate watered down comics.
Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.
Daniel Elkin wishes there were more opportunities in his day to day to wear brown corduroy and hang out in lobbies. He has been known to talk animatedly about extended metaphors featuring pigs' heads on sticks over on that Twitter (@DanielElkin). He is Your Chicken Enemy.