[At the end of each month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]
[Note: this month’s Pull List is split in half—one part featuring the regular column, the other devoted entirely to the full 52-title DC relaunch. Find part two here.]
Mainstream comic books—not graphic novels, but monthly pamphlet comics—usually don’t end in a satisfactory way. There are obviously exceptions (the conclusion of Scott Snyder’s recent Detective Comics run is a good example) but by and large endings, whether of a story arc or an entire title, are rushed, or overly dramatic, or too easily resolved. The publishers own the characters, and are consequently disinclined towards endings that might preclude further adventures; even if Peter Parker decides to put away the web-shooters and retire from superherodom, someone else will come along to take this place.
The on-going titles published under DC’s Vertigo imprint are other notable exceptions. Executive Editor Karen Berger runs the imprint with an indie publisher’s ethic, albeit with the resources of a massive entertainment corporation behind it: take risks, give creators room to tell the stories they want to tell, and respect the readership. When Vertigo books end they do so in a gradual way that respects the integrity of the fictional universes they contain—dangling storylines are attended to, characters are bid farewell, and readers are given the closure they’ve been seeking, whether they knew it or not, since the first issue.
House of Mystery #41 is not technically the last issue of the series—that distinction belongs to October’s issue 42, ajam-issue featuring regular creative team Matthew Sturgess and Lua Rossi plus guests Bill Willingham, Tony Akins, Steven T. Seagle, and Teddy Kristiansen. But issue 41 does bring the story Sturgess has built over the past three years to a close. And true to form for a series that was always very funny except when it was busy breaking your heart, the finale is only happy on the surface.
Having uncovered the nature of the Conception, Fig Keele reenters the titular House (and by proxy the story that she is writing), to give all the major characters the ultimate end of their stories, in the guise of scripts that she’s written. Reading these scenes I’m reminded of Grant Morrison’s “fiction suit,” a narrative device that operates like a diving rig, allowing the writer to visit the fictional world of his creation. Fig is Sturgess in fiction suit drag, adopting the guise of his character (as he seems to have done for the past five or so issues) to meet the others face to face, and possibly exorcise a little authorial guilt.
Guilt and blame have been recurring themes throughout House of Mystery so it’s no surprise to find that none of the endings (with the exception of the Goblin King’s) is entirely happy or sad—none of the characters (again, except for the Goblin King) are entirely good or bad. It’s somewhat galling to find that Lotus Blossom marries Fig’s true love Harry, but it’s worth remembering that mean-spirited and aggressive isn’t the same as evil; and I was sad to read that Anne ends up alone, until I remembered her single-mindedness in seeking to pluck the deceased Poet from a point earlier in his timeline, despite all warnings that it wouldn’t end well. Even the ending Fig writes for herself, ostensibly the happiest of the bunch, is just slightly pathetic and indulgent.
Series artist Luca Rossi contributes some of his finest art of the entire run in this issue. His gift for expressions and mood suits Sturgess’s ending structure, underlining the pathos in every scene. Take Anne’s distant gazing at the sea in the final panel of page seven, or Fig’s pained shying away from Harry in the fourth panel of page seventeen—each moving, but in subtly different ways. There are only a few artists I’ll follow from book to book, regardless of writer or character, but Luca Rossi has quickly joined those ranks.
I almost don’t want to read issue 42. No matter how Sturgess approaches that final issue, I can’t imagine it’ll be as elegant and apropos as this one. I will read it, obviously, and I bet it’ll be a fun issue considering the talent involved. But this charming, wrenching, quiet, most of all humane ending is the only ending I need.
If it wasn’t abundantly clearly in the first two issues, The Red Wing #3 confirms that writer Jonathan Hickman isn’t interested in the familiar, or comfortable. Reading this issue was disorienting, but satisfyingly so—the plot whips from a big action set-piece involving an invasion from the future to Dom’s father, still stuck in the past and recently abducted by an angry, aggressive version of Dom from a parallel timeline. It’s a lot to take in, and that’s without getting into Evil Dom’s explanation of how time travelers can also cross into alternate realities, and how he’s using that ability to create a “better” world. But if the mechanics are sometimes confusing, Hickman’s themes—the anger of youth and the guilt of their parents—lie just under the surface of all that pseudo-science. And as always, artist Nick Pitarra delivers exactingly rendered pages, including every possible detail of the big Red Wing space fight, or the bits of ship and pilot that dissociate into component parts when they crash into time. His art, and Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors, root the story in something we can comprehend, which makes Hickman’s philosophizing easier to swallow.
The first punch of the fight that’s been brewing through three issues of X-Men: Schism is finally thrown in issue four. It’s a pay-off for readers who have been waiting for the cracks to show, but I am more interested in the moment just before the fight, when the real tension between Cyclops and Wolverine is brought to the surface. In a sentence, the tone of the conflict changes—this fight isn’t about leadership and decisions, it’s about jealousy and loss, and so the likely outcome (which we’ll see in issue five) is yet more regrettable. But even with that tension this issue would be an average superhero punch-out if not for veteran X-artist Alan Davis, whose layouts and choreography convey the anger and effort behind each punch and throw. Davis’s regular inker Mark Farmer also deserves praise for his bold line work, as does colorist Jason Keith. This book just gets prettier and prettier as the story winds down.
Speaking of Wolverine, September brought an unexpected treat in the form of David Lapham and David Aja’s one-shot story, Wolverine: Debt of Death. For a Lapham story, it’s relatively tame (no dark humor, only one devastating personal failure) but no less compelling: Wolverine travels to Japan to investigate the murder of an old friend who’d requested his help in protecting witnesses, and ends up in the middle of a black market manhunt involving the friend’s family, giant robots, and S.H.I.E.L.D. It reads like Raymond Chandler, but with a mutant healing factor and WMDs—misleading conversations with authority figures, a not-so-innocent victim, even a downbeat ending that punishes everyone, hero and villain alike. Artist David Aja’s simple but detailed cartooning suits this kind of story—expressive, kinetic when it needs to be, and all very moody. Betty Breitweiser’s colors also contribute to the mood, juxtaposing the red and yellow heat of an explosion caused by giant robots with the deep blue and gray of a ninja’s assassination attempt. I’d happily read an on-going title by this time—with any luck Wolverine: Debt of Death is just a high-profile tryout piece, with more to come down the line.
Lapham also wrapped up the first volume of his and Kyle Baker’s DeadpoolMAX with issue twelve. Against all odds, this creative team has spun probably the most inventive and satisfying Deadpool story in a decade. In this issue, Deadpool’s zeal lets him see through the mechanics of the CIA’s plot to frame him and Bob, though they’re still too late to prevent a false-flag chemical attack in Cincinnati that kills thousands. Lapham has turned the character’s self-awareness and pop-culture-reference-spewing (traits that were interesting when Joe Casey introduced them in the late 90s, but were run into the ground by subsequent writers) into a pathology that has an impact on the story beyond comic relief. Deadpool’s insanity, when juxtaposed with the unreasonable, indefensible actions of his allegedly saner supporting cast, becomes Lapham’s means of revealing truth. The set-up for DeadpoolMAX 2 promises more of the same, and hopefully a good jumping-on point for hesitant new readers.
American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #4 delivers all the action the previous three issues had kept in check, including the use of vampire-destroying sunlight lasers.
Two issues of Daredevil shipped this month, issue three penciled by Paolo Rivera and issue four penciled by Marcos Martin—both are exquisite to look at, particularly Martin’s two page, 30-panel gird following Daredevil as he sneaks into the lion cage of a zoo to retrieve a piece of evidence.
Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker #6 is even more surreal than previous issues, and as much as I’m enjoying it, I’m beginning to wonder where this title is headed, and if it might soon be time to drop it and wait for the subsequent trade paperbacks.
Mark Waid must be reading this column because issue 22 of Incorruptible features plenty of Charlie Hustle, my favorite new character of 2011—and tossing a bone to the rest of the readership, it teases the long-awaited fight between Max Damage and The Plutonian. Meanwhile in Irredeemable, Waid reintroduces a lost character and puts yet another twist in the history of Scylla and Charybdis.
I enjoyed Secret Avengers #17 just slightly less than last month’s issue, but only because Kev Walker draws Steve Rogers like a retired boxer, and it distracted me from the rest of the issue.
Writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft continue to ramp up the tension in Severed #2, leaving much of the horror unseen except for a single full-page panel, impeccably rendered by artist Attila Futaki, depicting the gruesome aftermath of last month’s cliffhanger ending.
Looking Ahead to October
The real final issue of House of Mystery, more from the DC relaunch books I liked enough to keep reading, and Josh Fialkov’s The Last of the Greats.