Friday, March 07, 2008

Comics Are Expensive: ATOMIC ROBO #4-5, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER #12, PS238 #29, CASANOVA #12

Welcome to another installment of Comics Are Expensive, written by noted Expertologist Chris Lamb!

A very busy week this time around, leading to a much longer column than I’d originally intended. Also, a confession: I went over my spending limit of $30 this week after finding the second and third trades (also known as the Good Ones) of Joe Casey and Sean Phillips’ Wildcats runs for $3.99 a pop. Shameful, I know, but the only time I’ve ever remotely cared about Wildcats is with Casey at the helm, and it was just too good to pass it up. Forgive me?

Potential spoilers ahead, despite me actually making an effort to beat around a number of bushes this week. Proceed with caution.

Writer: Brian Clevinger
Artist: Scott Wegener

So it turns out yes, Virginia, there is an Atomic Robo. Apparently the reason it was so hard to track down had less to do with the book’s mythical nature and more with everybody in the New York area snapping up the issues as soon as they hit the stand. Due the kindness of strangers I’ve now read all five issues, but as #4 and 5 were I could track down and buy (and are still available in super limited quantities at Midtown Comics at 7th Ave. and 40th St. – thanks for the tip, Rich!) for myself, that’s what I’m talking about this week. Going a buck and change over my self-imposed spending limit is one thing, but I’m not yet ready to violate the sanctity of the faulty premise this column is built upon by talking up things I haven’t actually swapped money for. Fickle convictions are still convictions, after all, just with better hours.

With so many aspects of this book that could be talked about, why not start at the beginning? The first thing to strike me about Atomic Robo is its self-contained nature – while #4 is the second part of a two-issue story and #5 looks to be kicking off another, each can be enjoyed as it’s own thing without any prior knowledge. Everything you need to know is right there on the inside cover of each issue – Atomic Robo was built by Tesla in the 20’s and went on to become a robot science adventurer who had many great and strange robot science adventures over the next few decades. Now he and a bunch of fellow (human) science adventurers have become sort of the Ghostbusters to the world, putting down the weird and horrific where ever it may lurk for fun and occasional profit. In issue #4 it’s rogue pyramids, in issue #5 it’s hordes of Nazi cyborgs and a brain that would very much like you to behold the end of Atomic Robo. I read #4 without any clue of what had come before, and it worked just fine. Science heroes are fighting a sort of pyramid tank thing. What’s to explain?

Peppered through the series are flashback to previous adventures, such as Robo going to Mars for a bit of landscaping and wearing questionable outfits in the seventies and eighties. They’re a great device, used to fill in plot details and character points in much the same way Lost does, only without the creeping dread that sooner or later you’re going to have to sit through a Kate episode. Their appearance here creates one of my favorite storytelling tricks in science fiction-y type works – pulling the reader into a world already formed with the promise to explain along the way. Sure, I want to know about Robo’s early years with Tesla and dealing with that jerk Edison, but in the meantime there are Nazi-bots and mummies to fight, so maybe it’s best to just roll with your surreal settings for the time being. Personally, I’m more than happy to be patient.

I could go on, (and on, and on, and still further on), but it’s better for you to find out on your own. Atomic Robo is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had from comics in years, a seamless blend of hilarious moments and tense action scenes with great art capable of accommodating both without breaking a sweat. There’s absolutely no reason everybody shouldn’t be reading this, provided every other jerk out there hasn’t snatched up all the issues.

BUY STATUS: Now that I know where to find the damn things, I’ll happily keep reading. A trade should be along after this first series wraps with issue #6 for anybody else late to the party, and should be considered required reading any one interested in robots, science, adventures, or joy. Many thanks to all who recommended it.

Writer: Drew Goddard
Artist: Georges Jeanty

So I guess it’s safe to say the big event happening in issue #12 had nothing to do with Oz maybe showing up again, huh? If you haven’t read the newest installment of Buffy’s ink and paper season 8 and were wondering what that sound was last Wednesday, it just might have been the sound of thousands of Buffy crying out at once as they all hit page four. Whether out of delight or horror is not for me to tell, though some say that on quiet nights, when the moon is full, you can hear the click-clacking of a keyboard echo across the hills and know that another fanfic born out of this issue has just reached its dread end.

As character moments go, however, I think it works. Drew Goddard (writer of several episodes for both Buffy and Angel’s last seasons, as well that Cloverfield movie and a producer on Lost) takes over the book with this issue, kicking off new arc “Wolves at the Gate” with more than a few bangs. While the first of these is sure to generate the most talk, with cries ranging all over the spectrum between “great” and “worst thing ever”, it’s the immediate aftermath that stuck the landing for me – a quiet moment interrupted by first Xander and then pretty much all the rest of the main and supporting cast, escalating into a hilarious car crash of awkward at the same moment the newest threat to Buffy and her slayer army shows up? That’ll do nicely, thanks.

And it’s all down to Goddard being really, really good at this. As much as I like Whedon’s work, his comics writing has always lagged behind his television and movie work – there’s something about the pacing in comics he can’t seem to get down, and it sucks a lot of the rhythmic quality out of his dialogue that’s so key to it working. Goddard doesn’t seem to have such a problem, crafting conversations that feel immediately more true to the characters and their nature (the Buffy stuff is funny in the sort of comedy of errors stuff all her relationships seem to open with; the Xander and Renee things is genuinely sweet) than nearly anything else we’ve seen since the series started. I’ve yet to flat-out dislike an issue, and I really liked Brian K. Vaughn’s Faith arc a few months ago, but this is the first time I’ve so completely enjoyed the book that I was compelled to go back and read it again. It finally reads like not just a continuance of the show, but of the show’s better moments.

And last but not least, there are vampires. It feels like ages since the titular bad guys were any sort of real threat, but these guys seem to have what it takes: storming the castle in force, stealing Buffy’s favorite toy, and exhibiting some new but strangely familiar powers. It’s a nice return to form for characters that were reduced to little more than cannon fodder over the years, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. Love it, hate it, or meh it, Buffy #12 is the best Whedon’s pride and joy has been in a long time.

BUY STATUS: I was strongly considering moving to trades on this one, but I’ll stick around for the duration of Goddard’s arc. Then we’ll see.

PS238 #29
Writer & Artist: Aaron Williams

The word you want here is “charming”. From one end to the other, from socks that play music and light up to “Jinx. You owe me a coke”, PS238 is just completely, utterly charming. Remember a few weeks ago, when I said I’d be all over a book like Tiny Titans if there were more to it than super cute art? I strongly suspect this is what I was talking about, only before I actually knew it existed – the adventures of kids with powers and the special school built to hold them, complete with all the adventures and infrequent super villain shenanigans implied. I’m brilliant that way, sometimes.

The world of PS238 - or at least as much of it as I can see here – feels built from the ground up to answer one simple question : how great would having superpowers be? Every scene is a playground waiting to happen, providing plenty of opportunities for the rather great Flea to change into his costume or shadowy corners for bad guys to come flying out of. It’s the sort of world one might create after years of reading comics where crowds cheer on Superman when he’s fighting the bad guy and school kids wave at Spider-man as he goes by – a place where heroes are not just oddities flying overhead but an embraced part of the culture. Powers are just something people have, whether they’re cops or schoolteachers or casino owners with visible crystal skulls. And I really, really like that. It’s the sort of mood DC usually excel at when they’re not in the middle of Crisising and that Marvel seem to be actively throwing away with both hands in favor of a world where everybody hates and mistrusts everybody else. Williams has created a place where amazing things happen on a pretty regular basis, and the people living there seem to feel they’re better for it.

(I could be wrong, of course. It could be that just Las Vegas, the setting for this month’s issue, is this awesome, and everywhere else sees the kids fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them. I doubt it, though – when the cop talking to Ms. Kyle mentions a team up they had back their respective hero days and flies off, all without a speech about “doing more good with a badge instead of a mask” or some such heavy-handed nonsense, I knew this was a world with its act together)

At first glance the book may appear to risk being too cute for its own good, but there’s always a joke, a subtle reference, or a more adult overtone lurking around the corner to keep things aimed squarely at readers of every age. Whether it’s Julie’s feelings of inadequacy as a hero, Polly Mer’s blowing bubbles without gum or explaining where her name comes from, or something simple like ending the book with a letters page, there’s truly something here for everyone. Don’t think Disney; this is Pixar, with the same quality approach to storytelling and unique, memorable characters. If you have kids, this is a book for them. If you don’t, it’s just as likely to be for you. Just charming, really.

BUY STATUS: I have no idea what’s going on with the current storyline, but I don’t think that’ll be much of a stumbling block. I’m in, and there’s several people I need to mail copies to or at least get this on their radar. Thanks very much, Patrick, for pointing it out.

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Fabio Moon

For a book with a riddled with more plot twists and turns than I’d care to count and a title character who’s been missing for the last five issues or so, Casanova is pretty damn unbeatable. If there’s a triumph of the “slimline” format of sixteen pages of comics plus backmatter for $1.99, it’s certainly this – while Ellis’ Fell, with its tales of a crumbling detective in city-as-suicide victim are great little stories, Fraction’s super spy with a heart of rot and spiders trying to make good revels in its format, filling every inch of its reduced page count with enough style and sex appeal to set my brain a-buzzing till the next one arrives. Most importantly, it never feels like just sixteen pages – paired with the masterful art of Gabriel Ba, the storytelling her does funny things to well-established ideas like space and time, bending both around its little finger in the name of one last perfectly thrown pose or chance to sweep you off your feet.

Speaking of story, where are we this month? If last arc “Luxuria” was about Casanova Quinn finding himself in a parallel universe with the chance to make up for a least a few of his many, many bad decisions, “Gula” is the story of his sister Zephyr giving into (or maybe just embracing) the demons she can’t quite escape. Either way, issue #12 sees her life-long private war against her father Cornelius becoming very public as she and boyfriend Kubark Benday attack the moon base of E.M.P.I.R.E. (the secret intelligence organization run by daddy, don’t ya know) with devastating effect. It’s an issue full of tremendous moments, abandoning the careful dance of #11 in favor of the sort of unbridled destruction not yet seen in the series. Which is not to say the book’s excellent sense of pacing is gone, oh no – the perfect rhythm ticking behind the scenes is still here, still filling in character moments around and throughout the action scenes in subtle, often tragic ways. One particular scene with Ruby and Katio stands up as an example of so much of what works so well in this series, managing to be as sweet, shocking, and goddamn tragic as anything Fraction has produced to date. The jerk.

If there’s a message to Casanova’s madness, it’s that even super spies have to deal with the responsibility of their actions when they eventually come calling. For all the coolness of a world full of bandaged arch-villains, flying casinos and multi-armed girlfriends from the future, the horror of what the sort of lives the main characters lead and the effect it has on those caught up in their wake is never far out of reach. While Moon’s artwork turns Zephyr into exactly the sort of curvaceous, heartless assassin she no doubt sees herself as, he also perfectly captures the weight she caries around on top of it all, the awareness of how precious little of herself she can still call human. As cool as she and Benday look together in their best action figure outfits, everything about their relationship reeks of bad sex and worse decisions, of reaching out for somebody else if only to drag them down as well. Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be space cowboys, ‘cos there’s only one way it can end.

There’s still no clues to be found that might help unravel the greatest mystery of all – When is Casanova Quinn? But that’s okay, really; seeing Cass’ world burn in his absence is nearly as much fun as watching him tear it down himself.

BUY STATUS: This much awesome for two dollars is not to be missed, but for those of you in need of playing a little catch-up, the paperback version of the first trade collecting issues #1-7 for a mere twelve dollars. While it lacks the awesome back matter of the singles, it’s well worth the price of admission.

As you may have noticed, I’ve reached the inevitable point with this thing where the books I pick up are starting to loop. I think (but can’t guarantee) that next week’s installment is going to be a hard look at everything I’m currently reading – between the comics I’ve been exposed since starting this thing and the ones I was already grabbing on a monthly basis, there isn’t a lot of room left for the new blood my hobbled attention span requires on a daily basis. In the meantime, while I try to decide what to keep reading in singles and what can wait for the trades, recommendations are always appreciated in the comments thread or via email to See you next week.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Yeah, Casanova is such a wonderful treat to read whenever it ships. So much imagination and creativity can be seen bursting at the seams of the book. Really dig Fraction's off-kilter sense of humor.

    Though I seem to be in the minority as Fraction inspires the kind of ire usually reserved for Winick on the circuit of fanboy comic forums.

    Liked Buffy #12 too. But I didn't think her sleeping with Satsu was all that unusual. Buffy has been more than willing to jump into bed with the first available warm body when she's feeling hurt or depressed. It's not like Buffy makes the best decisions all the time.

    I thought it was understandable Buffy would sleep with Satsu. Given that Satsu confessed her feelings for Buffy in the previous issue. Of course, it was an asshole thing for Buffy to do to Satsu after she told Satsu she didn't feel the same way. Buffy Summers, you're a mess.

  3. "Though I seem to be in the minority as Fraction inspires the kind of ire usually reserved for Winick on the circuit of fanboy comic forums."

    That's a real shame, and a handy reminder of why I go to very, very few message boards.

    "But I didn't think her sleeping with Satsu was all that unusual."

    Me either, though it was a hell of surprise the first time I turned the page. I expect the real outcry (good or bad) will come from the same people with angry letters in the back of the book threatening to write poor reviews on their personal sites if he doesn't bring back Tara.

  4. People don't like Fraction?!?!?!?

  5. I don't know if "people" is the right word, as they clearly have no souls. Some sort of undead abominations, perhaps, momentarily distracted from their hunt for brains by an open internet connection.

  6. She dated Spike, for Pete's sake. It's not like she makes the best calls when it comes to romantic relationships - or always acts unselfishly while in them. First review I read said the writer botched it, so I’m happy to see someone liked it. Going to be a while before I get to read it myself I’m afraid. Such is the nature of trades only.

    I’ll take a look at the Casanova trade next time I’m out. By the title, I would never even have taken it off the shelf.

    Glad you liked PS238. The trades are a bit odd, since they simply collect a certain number of issues instead of going by story arc. And Flea is lots of fun, although Moonshadow has probably has the most regular lead role.

    Finally read the second Crossing Midnight (Chris reviewed it here .) Nice solid continuation. Moved things along while defying my expectations. Pity that the series is getting canceled. There’s clearly still a lot of that world to explore.

  7. Damn you Chris! For a second (no, wait, third) time you have given me reason to buy an issue of something I would normally never touch with a ten foot pole.

    Your reviews are excellent! Thanks for bringing publicity to things that usually don't get so much.

  8. Patrick - That's a little annoying about the PS238 trades, but I'm sure I'll muddle through. And glad you dug the Crossing Midnight. From Carey's comments on the cancellation news, it at least sounds like the had enough heads up to bring things to a satisfying conclusion.

    And "she dated Spike" is the sort of thing that should plague Buffy forever. The same for him.

    Moviegirl - All part of my personal vendetta against ten-foot poles. Glad you're liking the thing.

  9. People don't like Fraction?!?!?!?

    Some don't - that's why they use KY jelly.

  10. It might be worth noting that some of the early issues of PS238 have been posted to the web by the artist starting here.

  11. Spot - Awesome, thanks for the link. That will surely come in handy.

    Bryan - Aaaaaaaand scene.

  12. Woot, you found Atomic Robo! Glad you liked it.

    And don't worry, in Vol.3 we'll be checking out Robo's early days and we'll get some fun Tesla action. And maybe some Lovecraft . . .

    Matt Fraction -I don't understand how anyone could not love Matt's writing. I've been a big fan of Casanova since it came out and I also had the opportunity to work with him on Punisher WJ a few months ago. He was just a great guy, and his scripts are just too much fun!

  13. "And don't worry, in Vol.3 we'll be checking out Robo's early days and we'll get some fun Tesla action. And maybe some Lovecraft . . ."

    To quote the internets, ZOMG.

  14. Well, it would be rude to visit the period and not tip our hats to the man. As well as the Shadow, Spider, and Dick Tracy.

  15. All of which sounds great, and I really can't wait, but dude, you had me at "Tesla and Lovecraft".