Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
As Marvel slowly segues from a legacy publishing house into an infinitely more profitable film company, expect to see more things like Avengers Assemble, a marketing creation designed for the unwashed masses already lined up for the May movie. One character is even named Whedon. Subtle. This disappointing Venn diagram takes the shiny pyrotechnics of a summer blockbuster and tosses them on pages assembled by industry vets Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley. Where these two fields overlap isn’t especially complex. Let’s detour for a moment. Sequential art and words aren’t experienced: they’re dissected. Layers of characterization, perspective and action can be built in challenging ways because panels, unlike video frames, don’t vanish after they’re seen. For comics, chronology, motivation and perspective are tools to be manipulated for the reader’s delight. So when you make a reader pay $3.99 for 21 pages of people punching each other and popping PG-13 jokes, don’t expect to blow minds or incite riots. This debut issue sees the Hulk fight a guy made of water and a giant Minotaur throw Thor through a truck. Other plot threads poke up, but since this issue took five minutes to read, there isn’t much to describe let alone analyze. One has to consider that this might be the entire point of titles like this, to provide a base gateway where people without an 8th grade reading level can ride cinema synergy back into the comic store to (hopefully) dive into more cerebral fare. Hell, it worked for DC’s new JLA, so the best of luck, Marvel. (SE)
Boom Studios, 2012
There’s no escaping the obvious comparison between Key of Z and The Walking Dead, both being contemporary zombie tales with a focus on leadership politics over mere survival, and in that comparison, the longer running, more popular series comes out ahead. The thing about Walking Dead is that it knows how to keep you reading, even if its tricks are occasionally cheap and transparent. Key of Z has the same kind of plot devices (horrible people, gratuitous violence, a focus on the nobility of revenge for the right motives), but it’s missing the crucial sense of where to place the mini climaxes along the way. Perhaps it’s the fact that things wrap up relatively neatly at the end of this volume, but you’re not left dying for more. Even the harmonica that seems to hypnotize the zombies and that gives the book its title, which is an interesting idea, just kind of falls by the wayside as opposed to serving a crucial function, which is kind of emblematic of the way the story works (or doesn’t) as a whole. Fine premise, but the execution could have been improved. (HB)
Henry Holt, 2012
Kevin Pyle gets automatic credit for handling both writing and drawing duties here, but there are problems with both. The story is a fine idea: two boys from different generations (one a contemporary delinquent in the making, the other a second-generation Japanese immigrant interned with his family during World War II) discover what they have in common as their lives intersect. But Pyle’s panels, which rely heavily on the visual as many are lacking text, either require a lot of hard looking or often simply aren’t clear enough as to what’s going on. He slips between the two narratives neatly, but the conclusion could be deeper or more interesting, especially considering the heavily laden premise of the earlier setting. Pyle seems to want the reader to get a lot more out of what he presents than actually becomes evident sans research or narratorial illumination, and it’s a shame the simplified art can’t convey all he wants them to. (HB)
IDW Publishing, 2012
In Smoke and Mirrors all technology is powered by magic. It’s like the bolt of lightning that hit Ben Franklin’s kite actually came out of some other guy’s hand. Schoolchildren use smartphones and tablets to harness their magical inner abilities, and the head of the Trade Circle coven reveals new spellcasting products in the minimalist yet pompous style of Steve Jobs. It’s a movie-ready high concept used as the backdrop for a Bildungsroman about an angry young rebel with a troubled home life. This first issue elaborates a bit on the real-life implications of this set-up – cars are powered by talismans instead of fuel, security guards use crystals instead of guns or nightsticks – but fails to generate interest in its human component. Ethan Vernon is a fairly typical young hellraiser – he’s smart enough to be bored by school, and lacks respect for authority in part because of an absent father – who sneaks away to the bad part of town to watch an old-school sleight-of-hand stage magic show performed by a charlatan who may or may not come from this weird magic-powered world. Vernon’s a stock character, the sullen latchkey kid who acts outs for attention. His ability to guess the secret behind the odd stranger’s basic card trick doesn’t make him look clever so much as it makes the other people of this alternate reality look surprisingly gullible. The “shock” ending is goofy and heavy-handed but at least it hints at a direction I wasn’t expecting. The mechanical story would go down easier if the art wasn’t a bit amateurish, with off-putting character designs and frequently blank backgrounds. (GM)