If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of reading them, it’s that if you read a comic that has the words Master of Kung Fu on the cover…
…you’re pretty much guaranteed to see someone get kicked in the face.
Yes, it’s Thursday night and the appearance of a new panel of Shang-Chi’s sweet chin music has heralded another installment of the Internet’s Most Acquisitional Comics Reviews! But before we get to those, a quick announcement that it’s Fall Fundraiser Time here on the ISB, which is basically just a fancy way of saying that I’m thinning out my collection and selling a few things on eBay. So if you’re interested in buying some comics and supporting the ISB at the same time, check ’em out. Here’s what’s up this week:
Books of Doom #1-6: A great origin for everyone’s favorite time traveling horribly scarred armored sorcerer scientist dictator by Ed Brubaker and Pablo Raimondi.
The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana: The out-of-print hardcover by genius annotator, friend of the ISB and former Ajax guest Jess Nevins, exhaustively detailing the heroes of the pre-pulp era. I love this book, but somehow ended up with an extra copy.
Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew Full Run: Includes #1-20 of the original series, plus the three-part Oz/Wonderland War, plus the three-issue Bill Morrison/Scott Shaw! Final Crisis tie-in.
Batgirl #1-76 and Secret Files #1: And speaking of full runs, Batgirl is still one of the few comics that I bought every month for its entire duration and liked the whole thing.
Batman: Harley Quinn: This is another one of those comics that I ended up with multiple copies of over the years, and despite being the first in-continuity appearance of Harley Quinn, it’s also got one of my favorite Joker moments of all time.
Birds of Prey #5-46: And finally, this one represents a pretty big chunk of Chuck Dixon’s run on Birds of Prey, minus the first four because I got rid of those a while back when I picked up the first trade. It does, however, have the hard-to-find #8 that features Barbara and Nightwing’s date. Or as I like to call it, The Comic That Launched A Thousand Fics.
As you might be able to tell from the titles, that’s just the first bit that I’ve pulled out so far, and I’ll most likely have more stuff going up over the next few weeks for your bidding pleasure.
But enough with the plugs! We’re here to review comics (or at least I am; you’re probably here to ask why I didn’t show enough love to your favorite comic or whatever), so here’s what I picked up this week…
…and here’s what I thought of ’em!
GI Joe: Cobra Special: I want you to bear with me here folks, because I’m about to use a phrase that I don’t think anyone has said since The Silent Issue came out in 1984:
This new GI Joe comic is a really masterful use of the form.
Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. Before we get to that, though, I do want to mention the few things I don’t like about it.
The Cobra series has been as a high-stakes espionage story that uses the elements of GI Joe to function more along the lines of a comic like Sleeper, and on that front it’s been very good. But the problem–for me, anyway–is that the great deal of affection I have for the series is largely rooted in the goofier aspects of it. I like the idea of Cobra Commander as a legitmiate shrieking madman with completely insane plans that’s so good at motivating his soldiers and succeeding despite his madness that he requires a team of the best soldiers we’ve got to fight him and him alone. I don’t have much of an interest in reading a straight military action comic, and the overblown super-villain grandeur of characters like Cobra Commander and Destro–something that Chuck Dixon has completely missed in the main GI Joe ongoing but that Larry Hama has kept wonderfully preserved in the fantastic Origins series–adds a spin to it that I find incredibly entertaining. In short, I dig the silly stuff and how it interacts with the more realistic bits, and when there’s an attempt to make things “grittier” or “realistic,” the logical conclusion is to strip those things away, taking two psychic twin circus acrobat financial genius terrorists and removing the stranger parts, and it all leads to the sense of false “maturity” that you get from a teenager who’s just too cool for that stuff.
That said, Mike Costa made me like it in spite of myself, and it’s largely thanks to an expert use of a narrative trick that I just love: The story mirrors itself.
It’s the same trick that Alan Moore pulls in Watchmen #5–and again, I think we might be breaking new ground here by comparing a GI Joe story to Watchmen–but where Moore is more subtle with it (shocking, I know), Costa makes it the focus of the story, which, as it’s about a pair of twins that are always shown to mirror each other, works perfectly. It starts with Tomax and builds to the center of the story where the narration switches to Xamot and then works backwards, with each panel and each piece of dialogue building off its counterpart from the first half, reflecting all the way back to the first panel. I absolutely love stuff like that, and once I was through reading it the first time, I immediately went to the center and read each panel and its matching “reflection” in the other half just to see how well it all worked, and it was great.
I just noticed this flipping back through the book, but even the page numbering is reflected, counting up to eleven and then back down to one in the second half. It’s a thorough use of the technique, and Costa obviously worked hard to get the beats down, with artist Antonio Fuso pulling off the reflected panel layouts perfectly. So yeah: Masterful use of Watchmen-esque technique in a GI Joe comic that was not about Snake Eyes not talking. Believe it.
Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu Black & White One-Shot: I talked about this a lot during the recording session for next week’s episode of War Rocket Ajax last night (which is why you’ll have to wait ’til Monday to hear my thoughts on Batman: The Brave and the Bold), so in the interest of not repeating myself more than I already do, I’ll try to keep this relatively brief: This book is awesome.
I’ve been looking forward to it ever since writer Jonathan Hickman mentioned his story at HeroesCon, and while his story was the reason it was the first thing I read this week, the rest of the book didn’t disappoint. Like the Rampaging Wolverine special that came out a while back, this one largely reads like an attempt to recapture the glory of Marvel’s oversized black-and-white magazines from the ’70s, but while that one was super-heroics in the vein of Rampaging Hulk, this one’s a clear tribute to and pastiche of Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. And as you might imagine, I am totally okay with that.
Mike Benson and Tomm Coker do a great job with their story, setting it up like a Hong Kong revenge picture right down to the “film grain” detailing, widescreen-style panels and subtitling, and the third story by Charlie Huston reads like it could’ve come straight from the pages of Deadly Hands, with Enrique Romero’s clean art–as seen at the top of this very post–perfectly evoking guys like George Tuska and Joe Staton. Paul Gulacy even comes back to illustrate a text piece, and as the final perfect touch, there’s even a “Count Dante” style ad at the end. But that lead story… that’s the one that blows ’em all away.
For one thing, it’s a Master of Kung Fu story with no actual kung fu in it, and while that’d normally be grounds for a complaint, it’s made up for with the fact that it’s a story about Shang Chi going head to head with Deadpool in a Hunter S. Thompson-esque motorcycle race across the desert against characters like The Hitler Twins and a quintet of luchadores that ride a pennyfarthing. It is hands down the most over the top story I have seen in my life, and in case anyone out there’s forgetting, I write comics about a half vampire skateboard champion private detective who fights dinosaurs that are also witches, so that’s saying something.
It’s also incredibly fun. I haven’t bought any comics about him since Gail Simone’s all-too-short run on the title ended, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for Deadpool, and he fits this story perfectly. Shang-Chi, however, works because he doesn’t fit at all, and his presence just reinforces the whole comedy of the thing. If there’s a legitimate complaint about it, it’s that Shang-Chi’s more of a cipher than an actual character (you could essentially replace him with any number of other characters and have about the same story), but again, with the events Hickman and artist Kody Chamberlin put him through, who wouldn’t look plain?
So to sum up: I really liked a comic about kung fu and high concepts. Shocking, I know.
The Unknown: Devil Made Flesh #1: For me, this was one of those make-or-break issues that determines whether or not I’m going to keep reading a book I’m on the fence about. I read the first Unknown miniseries and while I enjoyed it a lot, I thought it fell short on its promise of a completely rational World’s Greatest Detective who turned her attention to the supernatural in her last months to live. The whole thing was just average, although to be fair, it was average by Mark Waid standards, as that guy can write highly entertaining comics in his sleep at this point.
This one, though, has hooked me back into looking forward to it, while at the same time frustrating me as a reader. There’s a fun mystery-within-the-mystery that’s set up and dismissed in a matter of pages with a clever “Flash Fact” solution, there’s a last page status quo change that I certainly didn’t see coming that hints at a much broader story beneath, and that’s great. But it also reads as though the first mini-series was just setup to get to this point, which makes this the real series and makes me wonder why I bothered with the first when it could’ve been trimmed down and done as part of this. In essence, this issue has retroactively downgraded the first series from “good but not quite up to its potential” to “enjoyable, but a waste of time.”
But again, there is a story here that I want to read, and Minck Oosterveer’s art is as good as his name is hard to spell, so I’m planning on sticking with it for now.
Usagi Yojimbo #123: Every now and then I’ll get a comment on the reviews asking why I don’t talk about Usagi Yojimbo that often, and my standard answer is that I would be saying the exact same thing every time, to the point where I’ve actually considered keeping a little text file on my computer for when it comes out so that all I’d have to do is scan the cover and write an alt-text joke. For the record, Usagi.txt would look something like this:
In this week’s issue of Usagi, Stan Sakai proves once again why he’s a twenty-one time Eisner nominee*. The man is a living legend, and this issue brings you the best of his clean but detailed linework and the engaging characters that have a depth that comes off instantly, betraying the master craftsmanship that most creators would kill for by what you don’t see as much as what you do. As always, the attention to historical detail is superb without being distracting (another element of his work that shows just how good he is), and his action scenes are superb without relying on even a single drop of blood to thrill the reader. I’ve said this before, but it might just be Usagi’s greatest adventure yet!
*: REMEMBER to change this next year when he gets nominated again.
And there is nothing in that review that would be inaccurate for every single issue. Come to think of it, I should’ve just started doing that and seen if anyone noticed. But even if I had, there’s one thing that I would like to point out here: This story, while it’s the note-perfect standalone that I’ve come to expect from Sakai, hearkens back to Usagi’s earliest adventures, but there’s such an amazing economy of storytelling that you know everything you need to know about these characters in the 24 pages you’ve got here, which is incredibly impressive.
Which probably means I’ve got another sentence I could add to the text file.
And that’s the week! As always, if you have any questions about something I read this week, or if you’d like to ask me if there is any greater opening sequence in comics than the Lincoln Memorial coming to life, fighting kid super-heroes and being shot by a giant stone John Wilkes Booth (answer: no), then feel free to use the comments section below.