“The first thing you need to understand is that it’s going to come at you fast, and you’re gonna freeze. You’re gonna feel fear–real fear, the kind that rattles your bones. Because there will be nothing else standing between it and all that you know. When that happens, I want you to remember this: You are the wall.”
This monologue opens Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans. With a disorienting cacophony of monster and mech, we are introduced to Dej Hobbs–the single protector of New Hyperion city against mindless kaiju monsters.
He is the wall.
He is also drunk.
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I love my family but I have to confess I am a terrible sibling and child. I rarely check in on my loved ones or express that love. I don’t even do a good job having casual conversations. I never figured out how to tear down the walls I put up as a kid when the world was tough on me.
Family is at the heart of We Ride Titans. Somehow, writer Tres Dean manages something nearly impossible, making a story about giant robots fighting giant monsters where the main draw is its characters and their relationships, with the spectacle in service of their personal story.
Welcome to what I hope is a new regular feature at Urbane Turtle! In this column, I’ll be diving into 3 books already in progress. There are very few rules here—they just have to be a comic I am not currently reading, not a number one, and if I can help it, not an anthology series.
There’s an old saying “every issue is somebody’s first” but that rarely applies in today’s insular comics market. Comics are for an existing audience of comics readers. Most coverage for comic series is around premiere issues without much discussion beyond that. I want to keep talking about books beyond their first issue. So that’s what I’m doing here.
I am curious how my impression of a work can change without the full runup of first-issue exposition, and what makes a good single-issue of an ongoing serialized narrative work. What does it need to be a successful chapter on its own?
I have no idea what to expect here. Will I discover something strange and unexpected about comics storytelling in the contemporary market? Or will I just be confused? Does it matter if I’m confused jumping into the third issue of a series? Will I go mad??
I don’t know! That’s part of the fun. Or I hope it will be.
Anyway, today we’re talking about 3 new books. Black Adam #3 from DC, Fire Power from Skybound, and Where Starships Go To Die from Aftershock.
Black Adam #3
Christopher Priest, Rafa Sandoval, Matt Herms, Troy Peteri
Is it fair to call an issue disjointed if you’re coming in with no pre-existing knowledge? This book does not hold together narratively—the jumping back and forth between Black Adam’s inner turmoil and the hospital scene is jarring. Black Adam himself jumps between illusions and worlds without clear differentiation between shifts. Characters speak in constantly interrupted or incomplete dialogue. It is fragmented and confounding. We have no context for where these characters physically are in either the story or the art. Is it a hospital? A jail? Kahndaq? Egypt? The US? No clue.
I imagine Priest chose this structure to capture Adam’s own disorientation with his deadly predicament. But instead, it makes the thing difficult to get pulled into. I am all for nonlinear storytelling but this doesn’t make me want to read and find out what is going on, it just annoyed me.
The story is titled “Theogony” which is a reference to the Greek epic that traces the origin of the Greek gods starting from before the birth of the universe. It translates literally to “generation of the gods” or history of the gods. But if there’s any thematic relevance to the title it is absent from vthese pages and seems more like an attempt to add a fancy-sounding word to elevate the middling story. An old superhero comics trick.
The story gives us no information on Black Adam’s history or what his internal struggle is. There is a flood of words on every page but none of them are particularly engaging. Characters speechify to one another without saying anything that moves either the story or the characters forward. What is Black Adam fighting for? There’s a passing reference to a quest for absolution and a debate over whether someone with such a villainous past is worth saving but both of these things feel more like set dressing than the core of the story and come quite near the end of the issue.
I can’t say I feel compelled to go back and find out what befell Black Adam. Something to do with a tea cup.
There is merit to experimenting with fragmented narrative but it requires a clear perspective and purpose. That perspective or purpose is absent.
Then there are just simple storytelling failures. At one point Malik (and it took me multiple rereads to catch his name) used Black Adam’s magic to call down some thunder to act as a defibrillator, but then is shocked later to find he is flying and says in amazement “the magic is real.” You didn’t figure that out when you called down lightning??
The art is fine but unremarkable. Sandoval shines during the action scenes which are quite visceral but his dialogue scenes (and there is soooooo much dialogue) are stagnant. Characters lack emotion or any sense of characterization. The shift between illusions (at least I think that’s what is going on with Adam) are unclear and muddied.
I don’t mind being confused and not knowing what is going on in a story. Often it inspires me to go back and find out how things got to the way they are. Here I get the distinct sense that the previous two issues offer very little to make Priest’s Black Adam compelling.
FIRE POWER #23
Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, Russ Wooton
I am not the biggest Robert Kirkman fan. I find Walking Dead dreadfully boring and after 3 volumes of Invincible did not quite understand what everyone was so worked up about with this series.
I am, however, an enormous fan of Chris Samnee. And perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this issue so much.
Opening with an epic battle between an ancient dragon and a clan of bat-winged ninja certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Like the best of his collaboration with Mark Waid on their excellent Black Widow series, Kirkman sits back and lets Samnee do the heavy lifting. There is no dialogue for first 8 pages, just some killer mid-air kung-fu action. It’s thrillingly put together with dynamic layouts and dramatic scale. Samnee effectively emphasizes the dragon’s scale with careful staging. The first image is wide, the dragon taking up half of the panel, while dozens of ninja, tiny black specs, rain down from a blimp. The enxt image is another angle with the ninja in heavy perspective as they fall toward the dragon’s open maw. Even the largest and closest ninja to the viewer is smaller than the dragon.
The hopelessness of their fight is emphasized on the page turn, where the dragon snaps its jaw shut, no doubt eating a host of the bat-ninjas, as it barrels through the rest, knocking them out of the sky.
Later in the issue, there is a grounded fight between shadowy figures. I do not know what was going on here, and I found it hard to follow who was the good guy or bad guy, but it cleared itself up by the end when the villain stood victorious. I am not sure of the thematic or storytelling purpose of the shadows–are these the ancient unknown masters whose identity are shrouded in generations of secrecy?
Matt Wilson’s colors give the villainous Master Shaw (I think that’s his name, given the summary at the front–so helpful!) a bright green visual motif to make the villain stand out. His eyes glow in the silhouette battle, and his actions are punctuated with green impact lines that help make the shadowy combat more legible.
Rus Wooton’s letters have a handmade, imperfect feel. It gives it a sense of retro shonen manga styling or the feel of a classic underground comic. It really works well with Samnee’s cartooning to feel of a piece.
This issue of Firepower crackles with a kinetic life. I’m not sure it has convinced me to go back and read from the beginning just because of my past experience with Kirkman’s stuff but if he lets Samnee drive the storytelling like he does here, I might just need to dive in and see what other fun is in store.
WHERE STARSHIPS GO TO DIE #3
Mark Sable, Alberto Locatelli, Juancho!, Rob Steen
The place starships go to die must be the bottom of the ocean, but when I see a title with the word “starship” in it, I kind of expect to see ships in the stars. This is, uh, not that. It feels like a Hardy Boys mystery or Scooby-Doo. That’s not, exactly, a bad thing. There is a ghostly apparition haunting an abandoned boat who is picking off crew.
What I was able to pick up of the plot here is that this is a crew trying to reignite a dying Earth’s space race long after the world governments have abandoned the stars or the idea of doing anything to heal the Earth. A reluctant ragtag crew is plumbing the depths of the sea for a ship that works that can get them back into the air.
That is actually pretty intriguing once I got over the initial shock of not getting to see spaceships go zoom.
I don’t know how effective this issue is as a whole. It jumps across scenes without clear transition, at one point the characters are in different parts of the ship, lightning strikes, and the they are in the water on the next page. Why or how they got there is not clear. It’s especially surprising because earlier, write Mark Sable and artist Alberto Locatelli do some clever flipping back and forth between scenes, with visuals and dialogue offering both natural and funny transitions.
The mystery that is unfolding here is fairly by the numbers and, frankly, I think I watched this basic outline in an episode of Doctor Who. There’s an alien robot ghost and it sank the Russian spaceship. Now it’s going to kill the people trying to get it working again. There’s even a convenient recording where the crew discovers a secret nuclear warhead the Russian government tried to smuggle to Mars.
This one isn’t a terrible issue but I don’t know that it is particularly good, either. I feel like what has been attempted here has been done often and many times better. The art is not bad, but the colors are muddy and a mostly monochrome blue that makes sense given it takes place mostly underwater, but is not visually exciting.
With Black Adam, which I read first, I thought maybe I was being unfair calling it disorienting. But this book tries to do some similar storytelling tricks and I could get a clear sense of what was going on and what the conflict was. But after reading Firepower which managed to be immediately engaging and had some impressive set pieces with a joyful kinetic artstyle, this feels particularly lackluster in comparison. That might be an unfair comparison given how good Chris Samnee is and that issue was an action-heavy climax where this is more act 2 set-up, there is just something missing in the visuals to give this story the oomph it needs to be more than a Doctor Who or X-Files homage.
I think that’s 4 other properties I’ve used as a reference point for this book…Well, I think that emphasizes how derivative it feels.
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What did we learn this week?
You can throw people into a story and make them want to read it if you trust your artist to set the stage clearly.
You need to set your scene in any given issue. Even if it’s an initial establishing shot or a caption box. Either of those would have helped with Black Adam. Both Where Starships Go to Die and Firepower give us a clear sense of where this is taking place, in different ways, and what the main conflict is.
I think point 2 is what I wasn’t sure of coming into this project. What does a comic book writer owe a reader in every issue? If I’m reading month-to-month or in a trade I don’t need a full recap at the start of every issue. But there needs to be a grounding. And that is true for any change in scene within an issue. Where Black Adam and Starship fail is in that lack of staging. And if I’m reading month-to-month, chances are I need a little bit of a reminder.
Got a book coming out in the next couple weeks you want me to dive into? Happy to hear your suggestions. If I’m not reading it, you might find it featured here!
So began Crisis on Infinite Earths. A single speck in the dark became many worlds expanding forever into infinity.
So begins Dark Crisis. A single tongue of flame flickers. Dick Grayson swore an oath to carry on in his parents’ memory and the legacy Batman created. From that single flickering candle came everything.
Robin was not the beginning. But he was a beginning. The beginning of the ever-expanding legacy of those original founding heroes. Robin was the spark. And the legacy grew and continues to grow into, perhaps, infinity.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Al Ewing is one of the best writers active in comics today, and one of Marvel’s most gifted storytellers of all time. His work on Immortal Hulk alone, a deeply personal look at trauma, faith, and identity, through the elevated lens of the superheroic, cements his legacy at Marvel. His creator-owned series, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead tackles similar lofty themes in the search for the ineffable sublime.
Ant-Man #1 is neither of those books…And that’s good.
Because Ewing has also proven he can take all of these grand ideas, the many folds and hiccups of continuity, the nuanced understanding of what makes a superhero tick, and serve up books that are funny and character-driven, delivering set pieces and moments that celebrate the wonder and potential of superhero comics as a storytelling medium. Ant-Man is more in the school of Ewing’s work on Defenders, a rolicking adventure through the cosmic eons, with a tinge of his time on Mighty Avengers, which explored heroism through the lens of primarily street-level heroes while delivering depth of emotion and character.
Celebrating the character’s 60th anniversary, Ant-Man’s pitch is to explore the legacy of this founding member of the Avenger through the lens of the 3 men who have held the name and how that legacy inspires a fourth, new future version of the size-shifting superhero. Joining Ewing is artist Tom Reilly (most recently of the stupendously fun THE THING miniseries with novelist Walter Mosley), colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire (who also colors the sensational THE NICE HOUSE ON THE LAKE), and letterer Cory Petit.
It seems strange to attach the word “legacy” to this character in particular, despite the fact that numerous people have taken the mantle, including thief-turned-hero Scott Lang and the amoral mercenary Eric O’Grady, now a super-villain-for hire named The Black Ant. Ant-Man’s profile has never been large (Giant though he may sometimes be), though it has grown recently thanks to Paul Rudd’s effortless charm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But those movies primarily concern Scott Lang, the every-man and underdog out for redemption. For much of the culture at large, this is Ant-Man’s legacy: a tale of redemption and the potential for selflessness.
But it is not Scott Lang’s legacy explored in this issue, or, really, the series at all. It is about Ant-Man’s legacy.
We are greeted in the first few pages by a robotic narrator welcoming us into a new Marvel Narrative Experience. The disembodied voice immediately invites us to ask a few choice questions:
“Who is the Ant-Man? What is the Ant-Man? Why is the Ant-Man?”
Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, has a complicated legacy. He never recovered from the events of 1981’s Avengers #213, where he slapped his wife Janet Van Dyne, the superhero known as The Wasp, across the face. It was an unforgivable sin, one that came to define the character, rightly, for such violence need be reconciled with.
The issue’s writer, Jim Shooter, has long held that this act of violence was never his intention but a construction by the artist, Bob Hall, who misunderstood Shooter’s direction to have Pym accidentally push Janet. Bob Hall has even expressed regret for how he portrayed the moment. Intentional or not, the damage to Hank Pym’s legacy was cemented.
Pym became synonymous with hubris and violence. It was he, after all, who created the android menace Ultron, one of the Avengers’ most dangerous adversaries.
For decades, then, Hank Pym became a character desperate for the approval of his more successful peers. Tony Stark and Reed Richards outclassed him as scientists. Scott Lang became a new Ant-Man without the baggage. How could Hank Pym redeem himself in the eyes of the other superheroes, who in time passed him by? How could he make right the death and chaos brought by his creation Ultron?
No writer has ever managed to truly rehabilitate Pym, though there has been an effort in recent years to simply sweep the events of Avengers 217 under the rug, as a brief dark moment of comics that has aged poorly. But the shadow of it looms over every story, every panel Pym appears in.
Dan Slott’s brief time on the Mighty Avengers series in 2008, following the events of the alien Skrull’s Secret Invasion and the death of The Wasp, seemed like an attempt to wash Hank of any lingering guilt. Pym, having been absent from Earth and replaced by an alien Skrull imposter, returned to see his planet in shambles, his ex-wife dead, and the Green Goblin in charge of America’s security apparatus. He took on Janet’s superhero name and reconnected with the android Jocasta, who held Janet’s psychic imprint as part of her being.
By having him carry on Wasp’s name and forging a new relationship with Jocasta, Slott attempted to absolve Pym of any lasting harm. Instead it only furthered his descent into a pathetic also-ran. This brief stint as leader of a B-Team of Avengers gave us a Hank Pym preoccupied with the past and his own absolution.
Hank Pym, ultimately, is a man obsessed with his legacy and his public perception. And it has been there since even the earliest days, before all the mistakes and dramatic loss. In Tales to Astonish #44, Hank Pym wonders what would happen if he someday meets defeat and death. He wants someone to carry on his crimefighting campaign if he dies. He empowers The Wasp as an agent of his own legacy.
He is haunted by the death of his first wife. Stan Lee’s narration notes that Pym is feverishly obsessed with forgetting the past, subsuming himself in his work in his lab, forgoing sleep or food. It is vengeance for her death that spurs him to action.
The obsession is baked into Pym’s very DNA from the outset.
Ewing knows that. His mastery of Marvel continuity as illustrated in Immortal Hulk, Defenders, and X-Men Red all make that an unquestionable fact. As does this issue’s use of the “ANT-AGONISTS” , a collection of Ant-Man’s rogues’ gallery from those early issues of Tales to Astonish.
But Ant-Man is not about these dark corners of Pym’s history, or at least not yet. Though there are hints at his obsessive and petty nature in the way he torments a young Eric O’Grady.
Instead, the issue is on its surface a loving send-up of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early adventures, where Pym is a mostly prototypical everyman Marvel hero and Janet is still his beloved partner in life and superheroics. It is a delightful romp through the Silver Age that simultaneously ties Pym’s early adventures to both Lang and O’Grady as if destiny itself set each of them on a shared path.
In the issue’s main plot, the Ant-Agonists gives Pym a “Sinister Six” of his own. It is simultaneously outlandishly goofy and thematically resonant. These villains are nobodies and goons. As Ewing’s opening splash-page, a perfectly rendered Tom Reilly homage to Kirby’s opening salvos, narrates for us:
It is said that you can judge a man by the enemies he makes! How, then, to judge THE ANT-MAN, whose rogues’ gallery includes Egghead, The Scarlet Beetle and The Cyclops? And even the Miniature Marvel’s LESSER foes could pose a DEADLY THREAT—if the dark day ever came that they united as a single fiendish force!
If you can indeed judge a man by the enemies he makes, what better enemy for a man obsessed with how future generations will judge him than a man who controls time and aging? What better enemy for a petty man who feels that life has passed him by than a nameless thug with a paralyzing spray? What better enemy for a man who lashes out in violence than a villainous head of a protection racket who intimidates others with brute force? What better enemy for a man who unleashed a monster upon the world than a villain who brings nightmares to life?
Not since the 60s has Ant-Man been a solo hero, his adventures subsumed by his role as a supporting character in The Avengers.
In this issue Ewing provides Pym a chance for heroism–a rogues gallery of his own that does not rely on the failures and hubris of Hank Pym, but men obsessed with him. It is a kind of superheroic glory that Ant-Man has long been robbed of.
What good is a superhero without a nemesis, after all?
And in the backdrop of this Silver Age homage (which it must be said channels the bombastic energy of the best of a classic Lee/Kirby joint), the mysterious future Ant-Man looms. He sets Hank on his journey and plucks him out of the past, for what purpose? That’s still to be determined. But it seems unlikely that Pym will get to avoid reckoning with his own shortcomings and the darker remnants of his own legacy.
Ant-Man is a name that has only been given to men of questionable character. Scott Lang represents the best of that story, O’Grady its worst, and Pym sits alone somewhere between them, never fully forgiven nor fully giving into his worst whims.
After the future Ant-Man plucks Pym out of the past, he falls through time and sees visions of the man he will become in all of its ugliness and does not recognize them. “Who are these men?!” he asks as the timestream flashes by him.
Hank Pym, welcome to your life.
Tom Reilly’s graphic sensibility, with its economy of line and expressive characters, is perfectly suited for this issue’s celebration of Silver Age storytelling. Like Darwyn Cooke and Evan Shaner or Elsa Charretier, Reilly marries classic cartooning comics with modern sensibilities. He lovingly invokes Kirby’s tight close ups and dynamism but maintains a more contemporary approach to the characters’ interactions that relies on subtlety of movement and expression. They are not the stiff and stoic heroes of old. Reilly paints Hank Pym as a man of haggard frustration, who smiles only in the presence of Janet, alone and away from villains or movie theater hecklers.
Reilly flexes his range in the story’s framing sequence in the future, trading in the scratchy faint lines of Don Heck inks for a streamlined future of curves and minimal strokes. The empty color backgrounds of the 60s are replaced with floating cities and harsh shadows.
Reilly is an artistic dynamo, and his work crackles with life. The range he shows here, though the differences between eras and even from his work on The Thing are subtle, they make a significant difference in the tone of the story. Compare the scratchier inks of this issue to the bold lines of his work on The Thing. There is a distinctive difference in how even those seemingly minor shift give volume and weight to these characters. Ben Grimm is sturdy as a rock, a trustworthy and straightforward presence. Hank Pym is anything but.
As gifted a visual storyteller as Reilly is, it is the work of colorist Jordie Bellaire that brings the entire issue together. The subtle misaligned colors, the texture of yellowed paper, the use of benday dots and the limited silver age palette all give the issue an authentic feeling of a “lost issue” of Tales to Astonish. It is not a 1-for-1 reproduction, however, relying on a far more painterly sensibility and subtlety of shading not possible in the early years of Marvel. This is good because it keeps the issue from being a too-cute parody. But the muted and textured colors evoke a feeling of a time gone-by.
In that way, the art itself reflects Pym’s perception of his past. These were the glory days.
It is a far cry from the slick, high contrast flat colors and rimlights of the future sequences.
Ant-Man #1 does not revolutionize comics or the character of Hank Pym. It does not even directly intimate toward much of the history discussed here. But it is a superb issue of a superhero comic that plays on knowing who Hank Pym is as a man— failures and all. Because here we get to see Hank as he always wanted to be: the Main Character, the swashbuckling super science adventurer.
But that is not who Hank Pym really is, and it is that aching hunger for an idealized legacy that makes Hank Pym a fascinating character.
As the robotic narrator compels us to wait for the continuation of this Marvel Narrative Experience, we await the future of a 60 year old character, trapped in a purgatory of his own legacy, overshadowed by the better man who came after him, who successfully found the redemption Hank Pym so desperately craved. What is the legacy of the Ant-Man?
I look forward to seeing what Al Ewing and Tom Reilly have in store as an answer to that complicated question.
I, a lifelong TMNT fan (see proof below) recently had the chance to chat with Ninja Turtles writer Tom Waltz to look back on his run on the recent dystopian miniseries The Last Ronin, and ahead to the upcoming Armageddon Game storyline at IDW. This was a very exciting opportunity for me and I was thrilled with how it turned out.
The secret identity has been an indelible part of the superhero mythos since Superman first landed in 1938. Little more than children themselves, and writing for a primarily young audience, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw the inclusion of mild-mannered Clark Kent as part of the power fantasy of the Superman character. To the world at large, you might seem meek or mild, or bullied, but inside is an unlimited potential–a Superman waiting to break free. For most of the history of the superhero, the secret identity was an essential component of the concept with any masked hero having a hidden life outside of the capes and spandex.
But as the comics have kept up with modern times and been adapted to the screen where the beautiful faces of the actors are a selling point, the masks and secret identities became less essential and creators began to see the story potential in either removing the component from their characters or putting less focus on it. Often the secret identity becomes a punch line. Indeed, many heroes have grown past the need for a secret identity and make more sense without it. Why should Steve Rogers hide he is Captain America? Or why would Tony Stark, with his massive ego, pretend not to be Iron Man? Even Superman, in the comics, recently revealed his identity to the public at large, no longer able to reconcile the truth and justice he stands for with living a lie.
Only a few superheroes still maintain a secret identity as an important element, and it is primarily because of their public perception as outsiders and vigilantes. Spider-Man went to the ends of the Earth–both on-page and on-screen–to recover his secret after it went public. Daredevil’s brand of justice puts his practice as a lawyer in jeopardy. And Batman, while no doubt a hero, works outside the law and is at odds with the police of his city. Unlike Superman, who often works alongside the authorities even as he criticizes them, Batman is fundamentally opposed to the authority of the state and his mission would be jeopardized if he could be held legally accountable for his actions.
Take Urbane Turtle on-the-go offline when you download the collected works of Urbane Turtle Year One.
The Collected Works includes some of my favorite pieces of comics criticism and analysis from the first year of Urbane Turtle, including the only place you can read my undergraduate thesis on Superman.
This features writing about House of X, Amazing Spider-Man, Strange Adventures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles City at War, Nightwing, and All-Star Superman. This book seeks to be a source for scholarship and to elevate the conversation surrounding comics as a narrative art.
Available as a PDF and CBZ format. Pay what you like, as low as $0.
Lovingly designed, assembled, and laid out by yours truly.