Best of 2010: Two Straight-up Good Comics

January 6th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Acme Novelty Library 20, Afrodisiac, American Vampire, It Was the War of the Trenches, King City, Parker: The Outfit, Pluto, Thunderbolts, Twin Spica, Vagabond 9

scott snyder & rafael albuquerque – american vampire


With the sole exception of the first two Blade movies, vampires don’t really do it for me. I get the myth and the metaphor–blah blah sex blah blah corruption blah blah mores–but it just doesn’t click for me. It wasn’t scary, and really, it wasn’t even interesting. Thin, pale men and women sucking the life out of others because… why? Who cares? It took Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff to make me care, and imagine my disappointment when I went back to those Gene Colan books and found out Deacon Frost was some wack regular vampire.

Turns out that Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque have the magic touch, because American Vampire is great. The central conceit of the series, that American vampires aren’t like European vampires, means that all of the stuff I hate about vampires, like the aristocratic demeanor and boringness, are left in the past. American vampires are newer, leaner, meaner, and more monstrous.

Skinner Sweet, one of the vampires the series focuses on, is proof positive. He’s a sadistic goofball, used to making money the easy way (meaning taking it from other people), and using violence to get his way. He’s casual, but there’s always that glint of menace lurking somewhere behind his eyes. Him and the European vampires don’t get along at all, and with good reason. He’s their antithesis. He’s gutter trash.

Snyder’s writing on the series is good, and Albuquerque’s art is great. He was talented before this series came out, but, in part due to colors by Dave McCaig, he’s a monster now. The facial expressions, layouts, action scenes, covers, and fashion are all on point. Albuquerque’s never looked this good, and I feel like he’s doing the kind of art now that you’ll want to sit down and examine later. What’s more is that he’s working in two different styles, and each suited to the time period he’s using them for.

McCaig’s colors are a huge help, and perfectly complement the mood of each scene. He even colors people differently–when’s the last time you saw white people in a comic with different skin tones?

American Vampire, from top to bottom, is well done. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Snyder was a writer worth paying attention to, and while I expected to like Albuquerque and McCaig’s artwork going into the series, I was stunned at the leap forward they took together.

jeff parker & kev walker – thunderbolts


Let’s be honest here: Jeff Parker is hands down the best writer in Marvel’s stable. He’s been working the side books for so long, the Atlases and Exiles of the line, but Marvel threw him to the front and center of their universe in 2010. That’s a move that paid off big. He turned Hulk from the best art showcase since Solo into a comic with a really compelling story.

Thunderbolts is one of those series, and concepts, that I’m super fond of, so it wins the year over Hulk. It’s one of the few 100+ issue series that I’ve read back to front because I was so into the idea. I feel like it went completely off the rails once Nicieza left that last time and Ellis came on. It became too mean, too much about villains being villains rather than villains working toward redemption.

Parker and Walker righted the ship, though, and they did it with ease. They stacked the crew with some classic choices (Songbird, Beetle, and Moonstone) and some brand new faces (Juggernaut, Crossbones, and Ghost) and created a situation where Thunderbolts actually feels like a new comic again, with just enough of a taste of the classic run to keep old heads like me interested.

First off: Walker’s art is great. It runs counter to what I think of regular Marvel comics as looking like. He’d do a killer job on, say, Punisher MAX or something at Vertigo, but on a mainstream Marvel book? He’s a weird choice, but the perfect one at the same time. The way he approaches action scenes and character work gives Thunderbolts a feel unique amongst the sea of mainstream comics. It’s a lot more interesting than what you might expect to see on a book starring villains. It’s not shiny, but it’s not all faux edgy, either.

What makes it work, at least in part, are the team dynamics. Crossbones is just a douchebag, Ghost is a paranoid conspiracy nut but not 100% a bad guy, Moonstone is what Emma Frost wants to be when she grows up, Beetle is trying to do the right thing, Songbird is trying to prove her worth, and Juggernaut is just hanging out until he gets a chance to leave. The way they bounce off each other, sometimes as allies, other times as enemies, and always in interesting ways. It’s not just a situation where everyone hates everyone else, or a subset schemes against others. Allegiances shift and slip as the series goes on. Thunderbolts is just a good comic to read, executed well and perfectly pitched. You can see the thought that went into it, and that’s something I’m pretty happy about.

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Stop Jockin’ Jay-Z [Thunderbolts 147]

August 19th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Black people! Comics! It’s been a while, but I’m back for my crown.

There’s tendency in comics to write pretty generic black guys. You occasionally get the Samuel L Jackson Fight the Power Angry Black Fella types, but more often than not, you’re looking at a slightly watered down version of that same type. Sanitized Shaft. Diet Dolemite. Toothless Tommy Gibbs. Put Bishop (pre-mega murder spree), most depictions of John Stewart, Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Mr. Terrific, and Steel in a room together. First, note their hair. Second, note their personalities. They’re all kind of really moral, upstanding human beings… but with an edge. Maybe they used to be mad at the man. Maybe they sometimes have flashy nods to whatever standard of blackness they were born into. Who knows, who cares, but a bunch of black dudes with basically the same moral compass is boring.

(Fully half of black women in cape comix, excepting Storm who has been kept in safety away from all things black up until recently, tend to pop into the snakecharming neck, nuh uh I know that chick didn’t just do what I just saw her do, tell me I didn’t just see that, super ghitto around the way girl stereotype a little too easily. The other half of black women in comics is Vixen, who is like Animal Man, but stuck in boring stories.)

There are no rules for writing black people in comics, and anyone who’d tell you otherwise is someone not worth listening to. In my family alone is a vast range of characters, some less than positive and some exemplary. Everything counts, everything is true. The thing is, sometimes people trip into pitfalls when writing black people, and black guys in particular. You could easily make a list of mis-steps.

One is slipping in slang. Slang is an intensely regional thing with several outside factors. I don’t talk like people from New York talk, but we do share some slang because of shared history or culture. Have you ever seen somebody write “crunked?” I can almost guarantee that person isn’t from the south, because “crunk” is its own past tense. You didn’t get crunked last night, you got crunk. Slang shifts and warps depending on where you are. You wouldn’t catch me dead saying “hella,” but I can’t quite scrub “might could” or “one more ‘gin” from my vocabulary. You seriously can’t just urbandictionary this stuff and expect to get it right.

Another way is by showing how ROUGH and TOUGH these guys are by throwing in some of that old “urban flavor.” Since they were raised on the streets they’re a little harder than some milquetoast whiteboy like Spider-Man! So they’ll slang it up, call somebody a @#$&()&, and then fist bump another guy right before hitting a villain with a yo mama joke or something. And sure, there’s that thing black people do where they nod at each other on the street (don’t front like you haven’t seen it and/or don’t do it on occasion) which makes our white friends ask “Do you know that guy?” in a hushed whisper. I can see how that’d cultivate this crazy idea that there’s a quiet coalition of people with a thug just waiting to jump out of their skin. But (wait for it) not everybody is from the cold, hard streets. Some folks are from the suburbs. Some folks are country.

The biggest offender in my mind, though, is something that probably got widespread appeal back during the blaxploitation era, resurrected by Snoopy Doggy Dogg, and then it caught fire and died when Destiny’s Child dropped a single. I’m sure you know it–some variant of a guy going “SAY MY NAME!” It’s raw dog alpha male braggadocio, a way of humiliating someone by forcing them to acknowledge the fact that you’re better than them. If you’ve ever played Madden NFL 2004 and broke out an eighty yard run to TD off a ridiculous quarterback sneak with Michael Vick, you know exactly what I’m talking about because you’ve done it yourself (I know I’m guilty).

It’s corny, it’s stupid, it’s cliche, and people do it, but I don’t necessarily want to read about it. It’s shorthand for Cool Black Guy, which really just means Black Guy Who Threatens People Other Than Me And Maybe My Friends, and that’s offensive, Mr. Charlie.


Thunderbolts 147. Jeff Parker, Kev Walker, Frank Martin. Here’s two pages and the two spreads that follow them.

And well… they did my least favorite thing and they pulled it off. It’s not forced, it’s not awkward, and it’s honestly the most flavor Cage has had since the Azzarello/Corben CAGE mini from almost ten years ago. The setting, the timing, the violence, all of this is dead on. It’s perfect, it’s believable, and it’s fantastic. It’s not just “Hey, by the way, this guy is black, remember?” It’s a show of authority, it’s a big dog showing his charges exactly who the alpha male is around here.

I like Cage, but I haven’t like liked him in ages. He’s been pretty bland and neutered under Bendis’s run. It’s not that I want the old Cage, the Kurt Busiek/Jo Duffy Cage back, but I kind of do. This thing that Parker and Walker are doing here, though, is the best of both worlds without ignoring either of them.

Every story is true. But, if you’re going to tell some of them… at least put in the work and get it right, like these guys did.

All right? Peace.

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4 Elements: Thunderbolts 144

June 3rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Thunderbolts 144 was written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Kev Walker, colored by Frank Martin, and lettered by Albert Deschesne. It was an excellent read, and a good introduction to the new team and status quo. I thought about doing a full blown review, but how boring would that be? Instead, I’m trying something different. Maybe we can make this a regular thing. Here are four things the team behind Thunderbolts 144 got right.

Luke's been around.

Luke Cage knows people. Luke spent most of his almost forty years in the game toiling in obscurity. He had a long-running series that ended in the ’80s, a couple of less-than-good revivals in the ’90s, and spent the first five years of the 2000s playing street level crime games. A nice side effect of his middling career is that Cage built up a strong network of friends. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and several other heroes have interacted with and befriended Cage over the years. He has a reputation and he’s got a deep Rolodex. While Spider-Man and Ben Grimm built their varied friendships off the back of Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One, Luke’s time as a nobody ended up being an asset.

Cage went from penny-ante hood to grown man gone straight to framed for dealing heroin. He was technically a fugitive when he began his Hero for Hire business. He took on the trappings of superheroes to make a little cash. The only thing that kept him from being Black Booster Gold is that he was after money, rather than fame.

Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Cage ended up being a great hero. He hooked up with several street level heroes and started fighting crime to do good. He cleaned up his building and his neighborhood. Later in life, he joined the Avengers and soon found himself leading the team. He spearheaded a charge for the Avengers to do more than fighting world-class villains. When Captain America came back and found himself in charge of the superheroes in the United States, he had one choice for the guy to help rehabilitate the villains on the Raft: Luke Cage.

Think it through: the man who is the equivalent of Superman in the Marvel Universe, with all the prestige and respect that role entails, goes to Luke Cage to get the job done. Steve Rogers respects the hustle.

Steve Rogers gives speeches. Tony Stark is arrogant. Thor is stuffy and pompous. Spider-Man is obnoxious. Wolverine is gruff and borderline rude. Hank Pym is eager for approval. Songbird is judgmental. Luke, though? Luke’s a man of the people. He’s casual. To the point, sure, but Luke’s genuine. There’s no artifice, no trickery, and no drama. He’s not your average superhero. If there’s something to say, he just says it. No beating around the bush. Real talk, no gimmicks.

Luke is fearless. Scared money don’t make money.

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