comics, comics criticism, no context comics, writing

No Context Comics: A Look at 3 New Books I Don’t Read from the Week of September 7th

What do Flashpoint Beyond, Starhenge, and the Dead Lucky have in common? 

Nothing, really. And that’s the beauty of this series for me. The breadth of what I can read and get out of it changes week-to-week.  This week’s books cover quite a wide swath of what comics are in today’s market which makes for a fun feature even if I can’t say I enjoyed them all. Well there’s really just one I didn’t enjoy.

Flashpoint Beyond #5

Written by Geoff Johns, Tim Sheridan, and Jeremy Adams. Art by Xermanico & Mikel Janin. Colors by Romulo Fajardo Jr & Jordie Bellaire. Letters by Rob Leigh

Geoff Johns got me into comic books in a very real way. I can’t pretend otherwise. I was hooked on his Teen Titans relaunch. I still love Infinite Crisis and think it is one of the most successful crossover events and a fitting love-letter to the DC Universe. I even kind of like Doomsday Clock! On the other hand, his Titans has not held up in many ways, and I wonder if so much of my love for that book was really Mike McKone’s art. (I got this epic two page interior spread signed by Mr. McKone at this year’s FanExpo Philadelphia and have it hanging on my office wall. Low quality paper and weird colored bar DC used to put on their books at the top and everthing.)

Teen Titans vol. 3 #22 art by Mike McKone, Marlo Alquiza, and Jeremy Cox

Johns himself seems to not be aging very well as his work continues to tread familiar ground and recent years have revealed credible accusations of racist behavior and questionable ties to his longtime Green Lantern & Flash Rebirth collaborator. 

Flashpoint is probably the man’s (and modern DC publishing’s) creative nadir. A misguided event with line-wide ramifications its story didn’t earn. Somehow, the Flashpoint Batman has become a significant player in the multiverse. While I think his inclusion in Tom King’s Batman was a bit of a misfire in execution, he at least tried to do something interesting with the character out of what I would imagine was probably an editorial mandate. Josh Williamson managed to work with what Johns & King established and turn Thomas Wayne into a compelling character in search of cosmic redemption. I was hoping the threads Williamson had started weaving during Infinite Frontier & Justice League Incarnate would continue on somewhere and instead, we have…Whatever this book is. 

A not-so-subtle subtext of a lot of Johns’ more recent work is his attempt to codify his version of the DC Universe and the mechanisms of how its multiverse works. There is a competitiveness empty of thematic resonance other than personal ego. What a bizarre artifact this book is. It has the audacity to set itself after the events of the ongoing Dark Crisis to preemptively litigate the specifics of how alternate and parallel realities work before we even know anything about changes to the status quo. And it is done without artfulness or interest, just talking heads on the world’s most boring talk show.

I consider myself quite well-versed in the complicated history of the DCU and its many retcons but you need a PhD in Omniversal Hypertime Theory to follow any of this. Johns has two cowriters on this book but I don’t know how the breakdown of writing duties works here. Is it a Johns plot with script by Tim Sheridan and Jeremy Adams? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s a dissociative mess. I can’t begin to tell you why you should care about Thomas Wayne fighting his back-from-the-dead-Joker-wife. There is nothing here with any emotion or personality. The structure of the issue is a  mess and I can’t even tell if the two scenes where Bruce Wayne shows up here  are the same Batman or if one happens before the other.

Stop. STOOOP.

Maybe the most offensive thing to me is that we just had a big highly-promoted event that involved Ra’s al Ghul dying and he shows up here without ceremony with a wink and a nudge about how all status quos are temporary. Why kill him if you’re going to bring him back? 

It’s the worst kind of editorial nonsense that DC had largely moved past in the last couple years. Why are they quietly releasing a book about the multiverse and defining how it is changed in the midst of an event that is poised to do the same thing but differently?

I think Xermanico is a great artist and I often enjoy Michael Janin’s work. They do fine here but they are illustrating a work devoid of meaning or entertainment and that is a waste of both of their talents. I hope they got paid well for it. 

The Dead Lucky #2

Writer: Melissa Flores. Artist: French Carlomagno. Colors: Mattia Iacono. Letters: Becca Carey

In some ways I imagine an issue 2 has to be harder than a first issue. With an issue one you know what you have to accomplish: introduce the character, the world, give some clues to where things might go and what motivates your character and if they’re a superhero, maybe what their powers are. It’s a lot to do but you have a sense of what things need to be stuffed in there. But what is an issue 2? How much do you assume buy-in on those concepts and threads you have already introduced? 

The Dead Lucky is a nice looking book. It took me two read-throughs to wrap my head around this character, though. I don’t think this is a problem, really. As an issue 2 you need to move things forward after massive set up in the premiere. I do wish we were given a bit more clarity on what Bibi’s powers are. It took me until the end of my second read-through to realize that the moments she seems to be talking to the audience she is actually communicating with the ghosts she can see through her electric powers. I can’t explain how I think her powers work to see ghosts because I was the only one in my high school  friend group that didn’t go on to have a PhD in science. But it is a cool application of the power. Though there is ambiguity on whether she actually sees them or if it’s just trauma. (My guess is they are real because this is a superhero book.)

Our hero is a tough and haunted veteran who is dealing with her survivor’s guilt which is a strong hook for a compelling protagonist but what she is fighting against is quite nebulous. It’s a dystopian San Francisco tech company which is a good idea for a villain but what her problem is with them is less clear. 

I really dig the art in this issue by French Carlomagno  and the costume design by Federico Sabbatini is flat out cool. The art is and the day-glo colors (by Mattia Iacono) have a visually distinct look that plays off the sugar skull motif of the costume and Bibi’s tattoo. It gives this depiction of San Francisco a very cyberpunk feel that works for the man-vs-machine themes that seem to be at play. The way Iacono uses big geometric shapes for the light and shadow and paints the backgrounds in monochrome flat colors makes the characters pop against the environment and has a playful midcentury style that grants a sense of timelessness.  

All that said this issue is a pretty by the numbers middle-of-a-story issue of superhero comics that doesn’t do a whole lot to set itself apart. Not bad by any means but doesn’t do quite enough to stand out. I will likely catch up with this series via trade down the line once at least the first arc has wrapped. 

Starhenge #3

Everything: Liam Sharp. (With a font created by Dave Gibbons)

My God is this a beautiful book. The early pages were difficult to navigate without knowing the context or who was providing narration, but that clears up a bit as things go on. Where Flashpoint is confounding because it is an incomprehensible mess, Starhenge confuses a new reader in a way that ushers you through an engaging story. There are unanswered questions and things that left me scratching my head but it feels deliberate. There is a cosmic mystery unfolding that is both ancient and beyond human knowledge. 

Starhenge, though it trades in Arthurian legend, is a stunningly and excitingly original work. Liam Sharp’s artwork, a rich blend of mediums, traditional and digital, with an organic and painterly style, is evocative and moody. But what is most noteworthy is his unflinching willingness to shift between disparate styles, whether that is impressionist landscape, abstracted portraits, baroque paintings , or more traditional comic line work. The way his art transforms from page-to-page is never jarring because it is done so purposefully, even if that purpose is not immediately clear. 

This is bold storytelling that defies easy conceptions of comic book art. Sharp has clearly poured his heart and soul into this ambitious book and even if the story didn’t hang together it would be a stirring work of art. But the ambition of the story does hang together. I don’t consider myself an expert on Arthurian legend but I am familiar with many of its archetypes and have read The Once and Future King. In that version of the telling, Merlin lives through time backward. Having the magician be a time traveling alien is an interesting twist on the legend. 

There is a page here, where beneath a blanket of stars and complex runes, our narrator reflects on the nature of time. How we “make” time with the process of just being. Bringing up the nature of time in comics always begs the question of how you present it in comic form, where the past, present, and future live simultaneously on a single page in any instance. Sharp seems to play with this a bit, presenting creatures out of time living simultaneously within the past. Are they true creatures of myth? Figments from worlds to come?

As Merlin observes the movement of great stones he stands before 12 panels of landscape as the time passes, his observant watch unchanging.

At Stonehenge, our narrator touches the stone and sees Merlin through regions of time and Merlin looks at her, a single strip of white signifying the broken timeline that connects them in a fleeting moment.

Sharp’s work on Green Lantern with Grant Morrison gave him an opportunity to show off his range and imagination but it was nothing but a warmup for what we see here.

There is clearly a lot at work in this book that I can’t fully appreciate in isolation but even as a single issue this is a stunner. I am excited to read this whole series but I think I want to wait until it’s collected in a single edition so I can just get lost in this grand epic.

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