Rude Chapbooks 06.06.11 | Ones Upon a Time

First issues! Wouldn’t it be sweeeeet if some publisher decided to deal nothing but aces? Till that fanboy fever dream comes to pass, “Rude Chapbooks” focuses on five notable debuts: Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Hellboy: The Fury, Reed Gunther, S.H.I.E.L.D., and Shinku.

 
Despite the virtuosity of his work on Captain America (one of that longtime superhero saga’s defining runs) and on Incognito (a bravura reinfusion of pulp Sturm und Drang into contemporary comics), writer Ed Brubaker seemingly always betters himself by just a bit on Criminal, perhaps because its noir glories most closely resemble Lowlife, his laudable self-introduction to the medium. This week, Icon premieres the latest miniseries in that crime-centered series, and based on Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #1, it should at least equal the excellence of its predecessors. As ever, partnering with Bru here is Sean Phillips, an artist more adroit than a dozen no-talents now basking in comics-press praise for their piffle on union-suit assignments. The miniseries focuses on the trials and tribulations of yuppie Riley Richards and incorporates flashbacks in an Archie-esque style (albeit one wherein the redhead and sidekick Juggie smoke dope and Arch tongues Ronnie under her dress while Mr. Lodge pontificates). This opener also closes with one of the most hilariously and homicidally perfect lines in recent memory.
 
Yes—yet another encomium focused on writer/creator Mike Mignola’s chthonic ass-kicker. Fanboys blanching at this tendency should save wear and tear on their already-shriveled cerebra and mouse-click elsewhere, bunnyquick, because in all likelihood, that tendency shan’t soon cease. Hellboy: The Fury #1 launches a tripartite Dark Horse miniseries continuing the big crimson galoot’s literally Arthurian efforts in the present to save the world and his own soul both. It also boasts visuals from Duncan Fegredo, whose artistry first drew notice in these precincts two decades ago on Kid Eternity—the Grant Morrison miniseries, not the earlier Quality triviality or the later Ann Nocenti trash. At the risk of dropping a signally ludicrous phrase, one school of comics criticism holds that artwork ought never call attention to itself, lest it impede storytelling. Proponents of that school likely revile Fegredo’s work, which, as here, rocks. Apocalypses in mainstream comics have become tedious commonplaces, as thrilling as week-old oatmeal; with Hellboy: The Fury, Mignola and Fegredo remind discerning readers how appetizing the end of the world can be.
 
Writer Shane Houghton and artist Chris Houghton must have missed a memo or two regarding the de rigueur status of “grim and gritty” in contemporary comics. How else to explain Reed Gunther #1, their new wild Western spotlighting a doofus cowpoke who rides not a horse but a grizzly named Sterling? Such unbecoming insouciance might almost tempt one to suspect the brothers of failing to take comics seriously. “Dot dot dot.” Less jocularly, Reed Gunther, which the Houghtons previously self-published, constitutes a genuine all-ages gem, wherein the Fu Manchu’d title character and his ursine pard (characterized as a “plant-ivore” and almost predictably the brains of the operation) aid a feisty female cattle rancher to save her herd from a “steak snacking snake”—the serpentine equivalent of Mark McGwire. This title joins Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors in suggesting that Image, to its considerable credit, is nurturing comics worthy of the mantle of Carl Barks’ duck delights and Floyd Gottfredson’s mouse misadventures. More power both to the Image movers and shakers and to the brothers Houghton.
 
Like the miniseries and the special that preceded it, S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 inspires both fear (to use a contextually loaded term) and hope. Although theoretically yoked to the so-called Marvel Universe—it basically details the millennia-spanning secret history of the Brotherhood of the Shield, the progenitor of the storied Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division, and borrows the spacetime-hopping patresfamilias of both Reed (Mr. Fantastic) Richards and Tony (Iron Man) Stark—S.H.I.E.L.D., as astonishingly presented by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Dustin Weaver, spotlights the glorious adventures of superheroes named…Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. One can’t help wondering if Hickman will at some point impishly shanghai Machiavelli as well. Similarly, one can’t help fretting that at some point, some suit-and-tie stooge at 135 West 50th Street will float the notion of making this title the centerpiece of an imbecilic “event”—the new-millennial equivalent of the decision, more than three decades back, to tether Jack Kirby’s Eternals to all the rest of the “intellectual property,” which arguably led to the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper quietus of that otherwise-promising Kingly saga.
 
“Calling a Spade a Spade” Department: Ron Marz, in a career spanning more than a decade and probably nearing two decades, has never transcended mediocrity as a comics scriptwriter. He’s mastered the niceties of balloon placement and end-of-page beats, but otherwise, his work perpetually recalls Gertrude Stein’s oft-quoted “There is no there there.” Shinku #1, his Image collaboration with artist Lee Moder, revisits that failing. By way of example, early in the issue, the title character speeds into a Japanese alley on a motorcycle, beheads a female vampire necking and readying to really neck with a clueless male, and informs said clueless male, “I can take you someplace safe, but we have to leave now”—and instead of fleeing, terror-stricken, into the night, the C.U. mounts the katana-wielding psycho’s cycle. Riiiiiight. Implausible, even by the doltish standards of mainstream comics, scarcely begins to describe something like that, and in general, the narrative of this debut never rises above such clumsiness. Moder’s visuals? Lovely. But not lovely enough to justify tolerating such professional amateurism, given alternatives. | Bryan A. Hollerbach
 
Click here for a preview of Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #1, here for a look at Reed Gunther #1, here for S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, and here for Shinku #1, all courtesy of Comic Book Resources.
Click here for a preview of Hellboy: The Fury #1, courtesy of Dark Horse.

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