Panel Beating : The Pull List
So yes, Panel Beating has wound up dropping off the schedule somewhat. Sorry about that - turns out this Batman commentary is taking a bit longer to work my way through than I’d anticipated (plus, you know, I’ve had Other Things to do). In an attempt to get comics coverage on NTS going again, though, I thought I’d kick-start the column again with a bit of a fluff piece. The next part of Zur-En-Arrh! is on the way, but in the meantime, I’ve decided to present a run-down of my current comics-reading habits, with a view to providing recommendations for readers who might want to try something new, and my views on the state of various titles, creators and franchises. And if you want to share your own buying/reading habits (or any recommendations for stuff I’m not reading but should be) below, then by all means feel free…
… wouldn’t always seem like the natural place to start, for me (I’ve always been more of a Superman fan), but it’s hard to deny that they’re the place to be right now. After a shaky few months, in which the aftermath of Bruce Wayne’s death in Final Crisis was dealt with by the awful Battle for the Cowl miniseries, things have got right back on track since Dick Grayson has taken over the cowl. With Grant Morrison’s run having essentially switched over wholesale to the new Batman & Robin series, that title has become the undisputed #1 purchase for me every month - primarily because it reunites the team of Morrison and Frank Quitely, to my mind the finest artist currently working in comics. When these two are working together, they’re like nothing else you’ll ever see, and B&R is already proving an unallayed joy. It also makes up for no longer buying the flagship Batman title - I’m disappointed by the break in numbering it’ll cause in my longbox, but I simply can’t spend good money on comics written by Judd Winick. But it’s not just Mozza and Quitely giving cause for celebration in Gotham; the first issue of Greg Rucka and JH Williams III’s run on Detective Comics, featuring new lead character Batwoman, was stonkingly good as well - largely down to Williams’ incredible art and storytelling, but the writing’s not bad either. Even with Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen’s Batman : Streets of Gotham being solid rather than spectacular, the same writer’s Gotham City Sirens a bland disappointment, and the usually-reliable Chris Yost’s Red Robin (featuring former Robin Tim Drake) something of a misfire, those two books at the forefront have made the early days of the post-Bruce-Wayne era very exciting indeed. Both series are absolute must-buys, and superhero comics as strong as you’ll see at the moment - certainly from DC, but quite possibly from Marvel, too.
Pull list: Batman & Robin, Detective Comics
Occasional buys: Batman : Streets of Gotham, Red Robin
With all the fuss over people dressing as flying mammals, it’s easy to forget that the Superman titles are knee-deep in Event-ville at the moment - and under added spotlight due to the presence of writer James Robinson (a man with an “anything he does is at least worth checking out” pass courtesy of his wonderful Starman series a decade or so ago), working alongside the aforementioned Rucka across the three main titles. Three? Yes, three. Because the Super-books are currently running a story titled New Krypton, in which - to cut a long story short - the Bottle City of Kandor has been restored to full size, with its inhabitants now living on a newly-created planet just round the corner from Earth. For a year’s worth of stories, Kal-El is living on New Krypton among his people - while down on Earth, assorted characters look after Metropolis in his wake. This has led to a curious publishing situation - you’d think that any story about Superman would live in the main Superman title - but instead, events on New Krypton are taking place in the awkwardly-titled Superman : World of New Krypton miniseries (originally solicited at twelve issues, but since expanded to fifteen). Co-written by Robinson and Rucka, it’s the strongest of the titles, and the only one that I’ve bought every issue of since the crossover started - it makes for a nice, self-contained story in its own right, helped by strong art from Pete Woods (and lovely covers by the increasingly excellent Gary Frank, whose ability to draw Clark as Christopher Reeve never ceases to amaze me). Over in Superman itself, Robinson is following Mr Convoluted History himself, Mon-El, as he takes Superman’s place on Earth. The elements of these stories that focus on the character’s attempts to adjust to present-day Earth (not only is he an alien from the future, but he’s spent decades in the Phantom Zone due to fatal lead poisoning… oh, just read the Wiki some time) are, at the moment, marginally more interesting than the various other overlapping plots - but I’ve generally tried to stick to this title, not least because of the art of Renato Guedes, a terrific up-and-coming artist reminiscent of Jackson/”Butch” Guice at his best. It’s only a shame that Guedes isn’t actually getting to draw the book’s titular character at the moment, because he’s shown in the past that he’s superb at it. Bringing up the rear for the Super-books (not counting Supergirl, which has at least veered towards “passable” in the hands of Sterling Gates, but still isn’t hugely worthy of attention, with the increasing sense that this version of Kara Zor-El simply hasn’t worked) is Action Comics. Greg Rucka is telling the story of two Kryptonians - one of whom, Chris, is the adopted son of Clark and Lois and the actual son of General Zod, grown to adult age through some Phantom Zone (that place again)-related acceleration - living secretly on Earth as the classic Silver Age identities Nightwing and Flamebird (and how convenient that someone else should become an entirely different “Nightwing” just as Dick Grayson takes over as Batman, eh?) and hunting for evil Kryptonian sleeper agents. It’s not a bad series, it just lacks any real spark at the moment, and there’s nothing there to make you desperately excited by the characters. Worth giving a chance, but far from a “must buy”.
Pull list: Superman : World of New Krypton, Superman
Occasional buys: Action Comics
While I try to keep up with the DCU as much as I can, it’s fair to say that things are a bit quiet at the moment. As such, there’s only one non Bat- or Super-title I keep up with regularly, and that’s Booster Gold. I’d dropped the series for a little while during some dull fill-in arcs, but writer/artist Dan Jurgens is back on the series, and it’s back to telling fairly straightforward (and mildly old-fashioned) but engaging time-travel-hero stories. Furthermore, the main reason for buying it now is that it’s started to include the sadly-cancelled Blue Beetle as a ten-page backup strip in each issue - this idea, also employed on a few other DC titles, is one I heartily support, and hopefully good sales for Booster might lead to a Beetle resurrection some time in the future. Elsewhere, I tend to keep my eye on Green Lantern goings-on - but I much prefer the “cop show in space” style of Peter J Tomasi’s GL Corps book to the main GL title, and I pick it up from time to time when the storylines look interesting.
Despite the recent quiet spell, however, a couple of projects are due to launch this month in DCville that look well worth checking out. Blackest Night, the big summer crossover, has its roots in a slightly dull (and interminably long) build-up in the Green Lantern books, but it’s undeniable that a storyline involving the “return” of assorted dead characters is an intriguing prospect - and a nice bit of meta-commentary on how death and resurrection is an integral part of superhero comics. And some of the teaser art has been genuinely creepy. Meanwhile, Wednesday Comics looks like an absolutely terrific idea. The next of DC’s weekly series (following the success of 52, abject failure of Countdown and “Oh, is that still coming out?” of Trinity), it’s an oversized title featuring single-page newspaper-style strips. The format itself sounds like it’ll be great fun, but it’s the dazzling array of creators that makes it look worthwhile - Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred on “Metamorpho”, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso on “Batman”, Adam and Joe Kubert on “Sgt. Rock”, plus the likes of Kurt Busiek, Lee Bermejo, Dave Gibbons, Ryan Sook, Walt Simonson… and its anthology nature means that even giving Dan Didio a writing gig can’t possibly spoil it. I’ve long been an advocate of the big publishers getting more anthology titles out there, and I honestly can’t wait to see how this one comes out.
Pull list: Booster Gold
Occasional buys: Green Lantern Corps
Planning to buy: Wednesday Comics, Blackest Night
I don’t buy as much Marvel as I do DC, hence everything that I pick up of theirs can really fall under this one heading. Top of the pile - but sadly not for much longer - is Paul Cornell’s brilliant Captain Britain and MI:13. Not only one of the best (and most well-balanced) team books of recent years, but one of the best superhero books full stop, it’s a crying shame that poor sales in the US (compared with a strong showing over here) have led to its cancellation as of the upcoming issue #15. Reinvigorating the character of Captain Britain for a new generation, as well as assembling a memorable and engaging set of characters (particularly the ever-brilliant team leader Pete Wisdom), its blend of wit, action and character drama have been practically unmatched in mainstream comics over the last year or so. Sadly, it’s far too late to recommend jumping onboard, but I heartily suggest tracking down the existing issues, and/or the trade of the first storyarc.
Another favoured title on the verge of ending is Brian Michael Bendis’ long-running Ultimate Spider-Man. A superb reinvention of the Spidey legend - kicking off back in 2000 with the retold origin of a teenaged Peter Parker - it’s been one of the most consistently excellent pure superhero titles in comics over the course of almost a decade. Sadly, in the wake of Jeph Loeb’s appallingly bad Ultimatum crossover, the entire spinoff Ultimate universe is being retooled. Bendis will continue with the soon-to-be-launched Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, but I don’t know yet whether it’ll be as much of a consistent must-buy as its predecessor. I’ve also been enjoying Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man, and having missed the start of the run I’ve tended to pick it up each month - although the current storyline has gone on a little long, and the book could do with a bit more of a spark to get it going again.
With the loss (potential or otherwise) of these titles, then, there are potential spaces for other occasional purchases to step up. I’ve been generally impressed with the relaunched Amazing Spider-Man, but the rotating creative teams have made it inconsistent - if they could settle on a solid team (I’d be happy with Dan Slott on writing duties, but quite a few writers have made good and amusing use of Spidey in their own titles lately, as if they’re auditioning for the job), I’d consider adding it to the “regular” list, despite my lingering misgivings about the way the current status quo was arrived at. Brian Michael Bendis’ two Avengers titles, meanwhile, are fairly entertaining - New gets a bit too wrapped up in crossovers to make for a consistent monthly read, though, while Dark has made a strong start but I’m not quite interested enough in the old Thunderbolts characters.
Pull list: Captain Britain and MI:13, Ultimate Spider-Man, Invincible Iron Man
Occasional buys: New Avengers, Dark Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man
Regular readers of anything I write about comics, anywhere, ever, will know that Phonogram is about my favourite series at the moment. I’m not sure what else I can say about it that I haven’t already, but essentially, it’s a masterpiece, and every time an issue shows up is a cause for celebration (quite literally, as it happens, but that’s another story). Issues of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass may have been similarly slow to arrive, but it’s generally a fun read - if ludicrously over-the-top, and more than a little distasteful. With Romita Jr in some of the best form of his career, though, it’s almost worth it for the art alone. Peter J Tomasi and Keith Champagne’s The Mighty, meanwhile, occupies a strange position - it’s perhaps the only title published by DC proper (as opposed to an imprint) that doesn’t take place in the DC Universe. The story of a Superman-analogue-gone-wrong isn’t the most original idea (in fact, it’s also being done in far less subtle fashion by Mark Waid’s Irredeemable), but this is an intriguing little story, focusing largely on a more conspiratorial angle. It’s a shame, though, that launch artist Peter Snejberg no longer seems to be around - replacement Chris Samnee works in a similar style, but it’s not really the same.
Pull list: Phonogram : The Singles Club, The Mighty, Kick-Ass
Vertigo / Wildstorm / Icon
Over in the realm of “Suggested For Mature Readers” imprints, there are various titles I’ve been loyal to for a while, even if their current quality isn’t as high as it once was. I almost feel an obligation to buy Hellblazer, though it hasn’t really been classic comics since way back in the Garth Ennis days. But Andy Diggle’s recent run was strong, and Peter Milligan has made a solid, if unspectacular, start on it of late. I’ve been following Brian K Vaughan’s Ex Machina since the start, but individual issues seem far less exciting than the awe-inspiring first year or so, and it’s really now a sense of wanting to know how everything shakes out (the whole series being told in flashback, with the “present day” first seen at the very beginning) that keeps me buying. A similar sense of loyalty kept me buying Brian Bendis’ Powers, once one of the absolute finest comics of the last decade, but a steadily more disappointing second volume eventually suffered shipping delays, and became a series that I forgot about until occasionally seeing it on the shelf. Hopefully the third volume, to start later in the year, might pick things up. A couple of new seires have started recently that are worth a look, though - Lucifer team Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Unwritten is the story of someone who may or may not be a Harry Potter-esque fictional character made “real”. It’s made an interesting start, but it’ll be worth seeing just how the metatextual elements play out - and what purpose they serve - before knowing whether it’s one to stick with. And the Criminal team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have made a strong start with the rather dark and nasty, yet strangely engrossing, sort-of-supervillain series Incognito, a comic that I almost want to keep buying for the classy covers and production values alone.
Pull list: Ex Machina, Hellblazer, Incognito, Powers (when it shows up)
Occasional buys: The Unwritten
One of the bad things about being a UK-based comics fan is that there are titles that - for licensing or other reasons - are simply not possible to get hold of, even when you have access to London’s array of specialist shops. Based on critical reception, online preview pages and the like, I know for a fact that I’d be buying Image’s Chew (actually out over here, just bloody hard to find), and Boom! Studios’ licensed Incredibles and Muppet Show (Roger Langridge!) series. Honestly, it’s almost enough to make one turn to downloads…