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3 Single-Issue Comics
posted February 25, 2010

imageTitle: RASL #6
Creator: Jeff Smith
Publishing Information: Cartoon Books, comic book 24 pages, January 2010, $3.50
Ordering Numbers:

It's a big information dump issue of RASL. This generally means that the attentive reader is less likely to figure out a whole lot that's going on in terms of the series' ongoing narrative, but is receiving information they'll be able to plug in at a later date. I thought Jeff Smith's version here provided a fuller sense of the clash of genres that Smith intends with this latest project. The mirror to Bone's heady of mix of Barksian and Tolkienian fantasy, RASL gives us straight-up science fiction and the real-world of larger than life, late 19th Century scientists, primarily Nikola Tesla. We've seen the science fiction; now we're getting the Tesla. There's a bit of bleed with men like Tesla into the realm of the fantastic already and Smith's narrative doesn't shy away from that. It's fun material brought to bear with a great deal of clarity. There's also a clever structural thing that Smith does where the story of Tesla has emotional resonance for the lead in addition to perhaps bearing directly on the science being employed in the series.

The great mystery for me is the role that the noir elements play. They return here to great effect, a series of comics pleasures that have nothing to do with figuring anything out: the shadow play, the criminal activity, a protagonist that's enough like us he prefers pleasure over guarding himself from the next plot point, the odds that are stacked against him... Whereas in Bone the Pogo-like comedy was mostly swept away by the battle between good and evil that came crashing into the foreground, it may be that with RASL various shady elements more likely to be found in crime fiction than science fiction will have a much greater life in terms of animating certain motivations and giving them a form to express themselves.

As always, it remains fun to watch Jeff Smith to draw whatever he wants, to tell a story with all the elements he wants in there, and it's more obvious than ever that it's his imprimatur that makes the book happen. We get to Smith through RASL; whatever it has to offer has to do with that single creator's talent, his unique way of unpacking a world. That may make the book pop on the stands more than any other factor, and one wishes there were more series that had the simple stand-alone idiosyncrasy of a single creator doing whatever they think best the way they do it.

imageTitle: The Astounding Wolf-Man #21
Creators: Robert Kirkman, Jason Howard, FCO & Ivan Plascencia
Publishing Information: Image, comic book, 28 pages, February 2010, $2.99
Ordering Numbers:

This is the first issue of a final five-part storyline for Robert Kirkman's werewolf-driven comic series, set on the same world as his much more successful take on superheroes, Invincible. The narrative of this final bunch of issues looks to deal with a final confrontation between the title-name lead character Gary Hampton and his one-time mentor, a vampire named Zechariah, followed by a more general werewolf-y plot resolution that will likely freeze the series and its surviving characters in comic book amber until they're next used. Zechariah killed Hampton's wife and allowed the world and Hampton's daughter to believe he was guilty of this horrific crime. Hampton's march back to public redemption ended in the previous issue, and he shows over the course of this one that he's perfectly willing to flush any approbation down the john to have a shot at killing his nemesis.

Repeating all of that was necessary because despite not really working to the extent of Invincible and certainly not Walking Dead, it should be clear that Robert Kirkman has a real talent with the kind of evolving storyline that drives those serial comics that remain, and that he can do so with his own characters, not ones borrowed from a different time and place. There's one clever bit in this issue where we found that a werewolf character was a man our guy thought he murdered at one point, and that he was driven to this character not out of rage but because he was sick and changing him into a werewolf would heal him. That's a nice, quickly-made point, and opens up a lot of potential questions about Hampton, even, and thus the entire concept. Maybe they'll be addressed in the final four issues; I'm not holding out much hope, though.

My best guess as to exactly where Kirkman got in trouble here is that the horror-character-as-superhero is a sub-genre with a limited return that is sabotaged a bit by the way modern comics have developed since Marvel played around with this approach in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. Every character plugs back into an older tradition now, even if only 75 years old. Every character has the monster's potential for sudden, over-the-top violence. Jason Howard's art is more suited to the antiseptic superheroics than to the horror, and doesn't in and of itself suggest a direction for the monster. It's been an odd series, and I can't imagine missing it when it's gone.

imageTitle: Fantastic Four #573
Creators: Jonathan Hickman, Neil Edwards, Andrew Currie, Paul Mounts
Publishing Information: Marvel, comic book, 32 pages, January 2010, $2.99
Ordering Numbers:

This is the mainstream comic book on which there's enough buzz to suggest that it could be the next one to lurch into an extended must-read period of the kind that sends fans scrambling to the back-issue bins some years later. This particular issue comes after one where Reed Richards chose in rather blunt terms to reinvest his time into becoming a better father, husband and friend. While you and I might do this by putting down a bottle or getting off of a sofa, Richards does this by abandoning a group of alternate-universe selves to probable slaughter by a bunch of Kirby-designed super-gods. I read that comic right before this one, and it's slammed-door nature still sort of confuses me, although I enjoyed the rip and tear playfulness of its creators thinking big. It gave me a hangover that didn't go away until the last pages of #573.

This issue promises a wacky vacation for the Thing and the Human Torch on the cover, joined by the hooky-playing children of the Richards'. The cover doesn't match the grim, 1970s-style pocket universe adventure that awaits within. Apparently, there was a previous narrative that ended up with survivors of a future world and their heroes shoved onto an expansive space ark. That space ark has functional problems; our heroes both get involved with the internecine struggles that have resulted and facilitate a solution to the immediate problems presented, although maybe not the characters you'd think of attending to each one. There's a herky-jerky quality to the narrative as it unfolds here, with the plot points past the major physical acts unfolding in small panels, crowded by lettering. I had to pay close attention to figure out what was going on, and it doesn't flow in a way that lets the climactic moments really sing. There is a nice page where Franklin Richards shares his sandwich, though.

I have no idea where this particular superhero book is going or if it's for me. There are moments of execution on the minor beats that drive me right out the nine or ten I own, so there's going to have to be something compelling or pleasurable for me to hang onto outside of those core comic book craft values. If Hickman can build on this notion where our heroes step away from certain worlds and certain fights and certain self-conceptions in order to find a better place in their central narratives and lives, you could end up with a smart take on the sprawl of creativity on which characters like these are held aloft. It's the sideways moments and the alternate universes that resolve, because the main comic book can't. It would be an interesting place to take Marvel's superhero-explorers, into the mysteries of modern, accrued, corporate storytelling and how to come out on the other side. I am probably hopelessly wrong, though.