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Monday, March 18, 2013

Comics thoughts for the Week of 3/13/13

As it's been a crazy busy week for me, and I wasn't able to even begin to crack open my books until this weekend, this may be a briefer article than usual. Nonetheless, it was a decent week overall with two great Batman titles hitting the shelves, the continuation of the narrative in The Manhattan Projects, and some interesting, if perhaps unsatisfying, background info in the latest issue of Thor. But onward to this week's featured book, as always spoilers are a go!

Spotlight book of the month:

Nowhere Men #4
w - Eric Stephenson, a - Nate Bellgarde, Jordie Bellaire

In the build-up to both DC's New 52 initiative and Marvel's response via Marvel NOW, there has been alot of focus on the "big two" comic companies and what they're up to in terms of their "universe shaking". But silently, through the course of 2012, Image Comics slowly began its re-ascent to respectability on the stands. For those who don't remember, Image was a company that was founded in the 90's by Marvel stalwarts like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, etc..as a way to create comics "on their own terms" more or less removing the concept of the editor and basically allowing the creators to not only put out the books as they saw it with no interference but to also own said creations outright. It was a revolutionary idea in an industry where your work was basically freelance or work for hire and whatever you created was owned by the company in which you were employed. Sadly, very little of Image's output was worthwhile with most of it being downright terrible. That doesn't mean it didn't sell though. Titles like Spawn and WildCATS were hugely popular, and even lower rung books like Shadowhawk and The Savage Dragon were moving units during the wild 90's comics boom.

Eventually though, Image fell apart, and its founders started going their separate ways with only a few like Erik Larsen and Jim Valentino still staying involved. Things looked bleak until the mid-2000's when Image, now basically just a publishing house for creator-owned books put out Robert Kirkman's first issues of The Walking Dead. The title caught on, a few years later it was optioned for tv rights and history wrote itself. With Kirkman basically becoming the biggest star in comics not named Neil Gaiman (and to some he may even have surpassed him), every comics creator worth their salt (and some that aren't) began to knock on Image's door to put out their dream projects. Writers like Ed Brubaker, Brian K Vaughan, Jonathan Hickman and others put out titles through the imprint. In the past year alone, we've gotten what I see as some of the best books in the industry (Prophet, The Manhattan Projects, Fatale) and some fan favorites (Saga, Thief of Thieves) and a slew of titles that I don't even pick up with more to come with titles coming from Mark Waid, James Robinson and more. There've been a few misses, like Grant Morrison's Happy, but overall the critical praise for the new revitalization of Image has been a major plus for the industry.

With that said, one of the titles that I'm currently loving is (Image Publisher) Eric Stephenson's Nowhere Men. The basic premise being in some undetermined time (we'll say the 1960's), four scientific geniuses decide to create a company called WorldCorp in order to solve the world's ills. This motley crew resembles The Beatles in their prime moreso than your typical researchers, or at least your popular conception of what a scientist might look like. You can almost line them up with Beatles archetypes with one exception. There's Dade, the idealist (George Harrison), Simon, the youthful looking businessman (Paul McCartney), Emerson, the hard working, witty one (John Lennon), and Thomas, the space-case who spends most of his time in the midst of acid trips and meditation. (Rather than Ringo, he's a bit more like Syd Barrett). The very first words echoed by Thomas before their press conference to announce their partnership are: "Science is the new Rock and Roll." and indeed it proves true.

After the initial creation of the partnership, we jump an undetermined number of years in the future where the partnership is dissolving and what was once four becomes two, as Thomas and Simon both leave either through being forced out for his eccentricities (the former) or due to disagreements in direction (the latter). To take the music analogy even further, the loss of Thomas then inspired a generation of "Science Punks" who began to either take on illegal experiments or just make drugs, depending on whose perspective is presented. We then flash-forward to the International Space Station, which Emerson had purchased as was sponsoring a heretofore unknown to the public space experiment of some kind. We join them in the middle of a disease outbreak that is affecting all of its inhabitants differently, mostly physically but some not. They're quarantined with little to no help from WorldCorp other than destruction. Facing this, Daniel, one of the scientists on board devises a way for them to teleport off the station and back onto earth. Unfortunately, with limited time and bouncing from one moving object to another moving object leaves them stranded in small groups in different places across the globe. Lastly, after the station is destroyed, it is discovered by an investigative author named R.D. and his team. R.D. becomes sick just as he boards a plane headed back to the United States.

This opens us up to Issue 4, the first thing we see is a readers poll for Best Company, Best Male Thinker, etc..it's like a Spin Magazine poll taken to a whole new level. But that's the point Stephenson is trying to make, just like the arrival of the Minutemen completely altered humanity and its popular culture in Watchmen, the creation of WorldCorp did the exact same to this version of the world in Nowhere Men. The mixed media used throughout also heightens this comparison, as in each issue of Nowhere Men, the readers get to peruse bits like this poll, ads for products, and excerpts from magazine interviews and books about WorldCorp. It adds a terrific bit of flavor that I think grounds a piece like this more in our reality rather than the heightened reality of the also science-heavy Manhattan Projects. The issue basically details the continued transformations of those stranded on earth, with one member somewhat resembling a bio-version of The Thing (Fantastic Four, not Carpenter) and another looking more like this....

This is a slippery slope for Stephenson to trevail over, but I hope that he doesn't take the obvious scientists become exposed to radiation and become superheroes trope. Everyone seems to have to developed some kind of ability, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for something more. More tellingly, RD continues to cough his was across the Atlantic on the plane he is on, surely infecting everyone with him, and this has some truly engaging story possibilities. Also, Dade has finally awoken from his coma and has a heightened sense of awareness about the Space Station incident and looks to be a fairly active character in his work with his old partner Emerson. Finally you have Simon, plotting something through a spy he has planted within WorldCorp, the last image we see is of said spy purging WorldCorp's records of the scientists from the Space Station. To what end? We'll see next month. By the way, the art on this book of gorgeous, with beautiful designs and vibrant colors throughout. I'd argue this might be the most eye-compelling comic Image is currently putting out. The very clean, also utopian-esque art is quite the contrast to the fairly horrific imagery that crops up with regularity. If there's a negative trait, I'd say its that the story advances fairly slowly, but I think with so much scope and depth as we see in the various story strands that Stephenson produces, he's giving everything adequate room to breath unlike your average Bendis story which is dialogue for dialogue's sake.

It's a really fun read, as a sort of pseudo mix of Watchmen + The Fantastic Four + a dash of Contagion + Cronenberg-style body horror + something wholly original, Nowhere Men is currently standing toward the top of my to-read pile. There's still of a bit of a ways to go before the first arc reaches its conclusion and we have a better sense of what the status quo of its world will look like once the dust has settled on those that have gained new abilities and what Simon is truly up to, along with wherever the heck Thomas is. But so far, I'm completely engaged. It's not quite yet at the level of genius of Prophet, but it's quickly becoming one of my favorite science fiction reads from the company.

One Sentence Reviews:

Thor God of Thunder #6: One day, I hope writers understand that sometimes monsters are more compelling when we don't get every little detail of their background, this issue was a massive step-down from the previous arc. C-

The Manhattan Projects #10: This issue provides an interesting shift from the main action into whatever is going on in Oppenheimer's mind, it almost seemed like a parody of Prophet. B+

Demon Knights #18: Etrigan is back and Cain continues to advance, I maintain that this book is wholly improved with Venditti on the title and I remain correct. B+

Ozymandias #6: Not a bad ending to a rather "ehh" series, I found its lining up with Watchmen to at least be satisfying unlike last week's Rorschach. B

Batman #18: A nice solid story, I still find little reason to care about Harper Row other than she's probably future Robin or some permutation of that, but its a good placeholder for the next arc and a nice approach to the Damian stuff. B+

Batman and Robin #18: Yep, the silent issue, it's good, fairly touching with pretty imagery if a little melodramatic; I am at least slightly more interested in what Tomasi may do next now. A-

Threshold #3: Ugh, do not dig, I love ya Keith, come back to Legion. D and Dropped
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