When Words Collide

Wed, September 17th, 2008 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

A BOUNTY OF BOOKS

I spend a lot of time reviewing single issues for CBR, but there's nothing I like more than a nice thick book of comic book goodness, whether it's an original graphic novel or a glossy collected edition.

I also like lists, and as I was checking out the list of books scheduled to come out over the next four weeks, I found an abundance of great releases, more than enough to strain my wallet. Financial concerns won't stop me from picking up most of these books, though. After all, my kids are years away from college, and I'm sure, by then, tuition costs will be reasonable and affordable, right? (Okay, I don't condone sacrificing the college fund for the fancy hardcover collections, but we are in an era of great comic book collected editions, and they are hard to resist.)

What I'll do this week is run through my Top 20 list of upcoming releases. These are all books scheduled to hit comic shops between today and the middle of October. Had I extended the window through November and December, the list would have been too much of the awesome for anyone to handle. 20 slices of awesome should be just enough to talk about, and it should give you plenty of reading material as the weather starts getting colder and the sunny days become shorter and shorter. These are the 20 books I'm most looking forward to -- the ones I recommend that you read for yourself. I'll do this countdown-style, building up to the #1 greatest graphic novel or collected edition coming out in the next four weeks. I'd advise against skipping ahead, though, because all of these books are worth your time.

#20: Y the Last Man Deluxe Edition Volume 1 HC (October 15th)
For less than thirty bucks, you get the first ten issues of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's vision of a feminist future, in a hardcover format. If you somehow missed this series, this is the way to get into it. I will warn you, though, that while the series starts with a strong hook -- only one man and his monkey remain alive after a sudden and inexplicable plague -- it also stumbles with one too many pop culture references at the expense of characterization. Vaughan begins "Runaways" with a similar reliance on easy cultural allusions, and it took him a year or two to move past that technique into something more fully-developed. He has the same problem here, although he overcomes it a bit more quickly. By the end of this first hardcover volume, "Y the Last Man" becomes the epic journey that it needs to be. The virtue of this series is holistic, though, and if you buy this first book you need to stick it through until the end of the series, when Vaughan and Guerra wrap everything up in one of the most unexpected and satisfying conclusions ever.

#19: Superman: Kryptonite HC (September 17th)
This is a lesser work from writer Darwyn Cooke and artist Tim Sale, but it's still an interesting failure. I'm usually happy to buy any of Sale's work in hardcover format, though, and even though this isn't a masterpiece, it's still worth a look. You might want to wait for the more reasonably-priced trade paperback if you're not as much of a hardcover freak as I am.

"Superman: Kryptonite" tells the hitherto unrevealed story of Superman's first exposure to kryptonite, so it's a glimpse at the early days of the character, something that would seem right in the wheelhouse of "New Frontier"-era Cooke and the Sale of "Superman for All Seasons." But the story doesn't have the energy or innovation of "New Frontier" and the visuals lack the Norman Rockwell Americana of "Superman for All Seasons." The shipping delays surely killed interest in it when it was originally serialized, but I think the story will read a whole lot better as a collected edition. It may not be the greatest Superman story this year, but even if the story doesn't quite work, you still get a fresh look at Metropolis under Sale's pen and ink.

#18: Power Pack: Day One Digest (September 17th)
With this vivid retelling of the Power Pack origin story, Fred Van Lente hit his stride on his all-ages books. My son and I had read plenty of his other Marvel Adventures and "Power Pack" stories and they always suffered from slightly too much exposition, or slightly too much awkward pacing. Van Lente is a talented writer, but he didn't seem to hit the necessary marks quite hard enough, at least on his all-ages stuff. Until "Power Pack: Day One," which is laugh-out-loud funny and invigorating. It has the youthful enthusiasm that a Power Pack story needs, but the plot had substance and depth as well. And Gurihiru is the Power Pack artist of today. Nobody else has come close to the elegance and whimsy of his work, and even though I loathe the small digest format (since I don't like to see gorgeous artwork shrunken down), this one is a keeper.

#17: Cairo SC (September 24th)
G. Willow Wilson's "Air" hasn't hit its stride yet, but if you want to see what she's capable of, you need to check out "Cairo." When this book debuted in hardcover, it was promoted as a sort of realistic religious journey into the Middle East. That's not what it is at all. It's a heroic, supernatural adventure story set in a foreign land, and though Wilson explores themes of identity and faith, it's really a story about espionage and djinns. MK Perker's work looks much better in this black and white graphic novel than it does in his recent color series, and though he suffers from the Rags Morales large-nose syndrome, his character work is effective throughout the book. "Cairo" is a lot of fun, and it has substance as well.

#16: Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 11 (September 17th)
This is the first post-Kirby volume of "Fantastic Four Masterworks," featuring stories written by Stan Lee and illustrated by John Buscema and John Romita, Jr. I've never read these stories, although I have glanced at the artwork in pdf format thanks to my handy-dandy "Fantastic Four" collection on DVD. In my earlier years, I was far more of a Buscema guy than a Kirby guy, and although I've learned to love Kirby passionately, I still adore the work Buscema produced in his prime, and the stuff collected here is that sort of work. True, this is not the pinnacle of "Fantastic Four" creativity, when Lee and Kirby created the Marvel Universe from the ground up, but it's still excellent-looking superhero material and I'm looking forward to cracking this volume open.

#15: Blue Beetle Volume 4 TPB (September 24th)
This trade paperback collects the finale of the John Rogers run and the all-Spanish issue scripted by Jai Nitz. "Blue Beetle" #25, the conclusion of Rogers's two-plus-years on the book, features one of the greatest climaxes and resolutions in recent mainstream superhero comics. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this trade if you haven't yet picked up the previous three, but I do recommend that you pick up all four. It's part DC's version of "Spider-Man," part sci-fi adventure, part family saga, and all quality. It's also got Rafael Albuquerque's artwork, and he's the real deal.

#14: The Country Nurse: Essex County Volume 3 (October 1st)
I first discovered Jeff Lemire's work through his Xeric-award winning "Lost Dogs" graphic novel, a rough-looking red and black tale about a simple farmer and his daughter. As raw as it was, I found it one of the most emotionally powerful comics I'd ever read, and I was happy to see him launch a graphic novel trilogy at Top Shelf a couple of years ago. Now, the final installment of the "Essex County Trilogy" is due for release, and Lemire has a Vertigo graphic novel in the works for next year. There's a reason Lemire has attracted such attention over the years, and it has to do with the way he balances simple life with a yearning for something greater. His stories explore the dreams and pain of the outsider, and his vigorous brush line accentuates their bleak yet hopeful worlds. Lemire is good, and his work deserves your attention.

#13: Tomb of Dracula Omnibus Volume 1 HC (October 1st)
This is one of those landmark comic book series that I've never read at all. Gothic horror has never been my favorite genre, but I've been looking forward to dipping into "Tomb of Dracula" ever since reading Douglas Wolk's examination of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's collaboration as printed in "Reading Comics." I almost bought the Essential editions a few times, but I dislike seeing color comics reprinted in black and white. For me, the economical price of the Essential editions doesn't make up for the mind-numbing sameness of page after page of empty images. I like black and white comics that were intended for black and white, but color pages with the color removed look incomplete to me. So news of a "Tomb of Dracula Omnibus" was just what I needed, and since I'm a sucker for the Omnibus editions in general, I won't be able to pass this one by.

#12: The Alcoholic HC (September 24th)
Jonathan Ames's fiction -- or creative non-fiction, depending on where you draw the line -- primarily deals with the misadventures of his drunken, misanthropic alter ego. Ames's work is funny and tragic, more of the former than the latter, give or take your capacity to find humor in tragedy. He's not what you might expect from a Vertigo writer, since he's avoided genre trappings for most of his career (although he did write a pretty amazing detective story for an issue of "McSweeney's" earlier this year). But this is a different Vertigo than it was ten years ago, and "The Alcoholic" is definitely something that I'm excited about reading. I'm not sure that Ames's strong narrative voice will translate to comics, but Dean Haspiel is tackling the art, and he might be able to capture Ames's skewed perspective with style.

#11: Heavy Liquid HC (October 15th)
The listing for this Paul Pope hardcover posts the price as $39.99, which is ridiculously expensive for a collection of a five-issue series. But, aesthetically, this may be Pope's most complete work ever. It's more restrained than his "THB" and more sprawling than "The Ballad of Dr. Richardson." Pope's work on Batman was interesting, but it was bound by the conventions of Batman's world and didn't allow Pope to explore his own thematic interests with the freedom seen in "Heavy Liquid." Pope is indisputably one of the most influential artists of the past decade, and his work should be read more widely. I have the five issues already, but I'll still pick up this hardcover just to revel in its beauty.

#10: Marvel Boy Premiere HC (September 24th)
Just in time for the debut of "Final Crisis" comes a hardcover collection of Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones's first collaboration. Okay, it's a few months late, but maybe it's supposed to tie in to the second half of "Secret Invasion," when Noh-Varr seems destined to play an important role. Whatever the reason for the strange scheduling decision, this book is an excellent example of Morrison's Marvel work. It's pound-for-pound his best Marvel work, actually, and since the trade paperback has been out of print for a while, you may not have read this bizarre take on a seemingly-alternate reality Marvel Universe. It's vicious and powerful, and it's a sleek dagger of quality that you won't want to miss.

#9: Absolute Ronin HC (September 24th)
If you're buying this Frank Miller classic for the story, you will be disappointed the way you were disappointed when you saw that sneaked footage of the Spirit fight scene. But I love the production values on these Absolute editions, and this one is particularly interesting as an example of Miller's formative years. He was already a superstar by the time "Ronin" debuted, but his "Daredevil" style morphed with this influence of Moebius and "Lone Wolf and Cub" artist Goseki Kojima in the pages of this book, and Miller's work transformed forever. You can see him struggling to adopt new techniques over the course of this story, and the stylistic improvisations here are thrilling to see. This is Miller's artistic prelude to "The Dark Knight Returns" and I can't wait to see how it looks in this format.

#8: Incredible Hercules: Against the World TPB (September 17th)
Everyone complains about Jeph Loeb's new "Hulk" series, and describes how poorly written it is compared to Greg Pak's work on "The Incredible Hulk" over the past several years. I radically disagree with those opinions, because I think Loeb's "Hulk" is gleefully idiotic -- and that's the point -- while Pak's prior work on the character was trite and obvious. "Planet Hulk" was a by-the-numbers Hulk-as-gladiator offering, and when the title shifted to "The Incredible Hercules," I had no trouble dropping it from my pull list. But I sampled the first issue anyway, and I could feel the Fred Van Lente influence. Then I continued to buy it after all, and I found that the Van Lente/Pak combination was one of the strongest Marvel writing teams. The stories reprinted in this "Incredible Hercules" trade paperback show this series at its best, mixing classic Greek mythology with the mythology of the Marvel Universe, and the art is excellent. Yes, "Hulk" may not be as well-written as this series, but very few series are.

#7: Local HC (September 17th)
I missed this series when it was released in single issues, but I think Brian Wood is producing the best work of his career right now, and Ryan Kelly is one of the best of the post-Paul Pope generation. I enjoyed this team on "The New York Four" and everything I've read about "Local" indicates that it will superior in every way. I buy a lot of hardcovers that I don't get around to reading for weeks or even months. But when I finally get my copy of "Local," I'll tear into it immediately.

#6: Immortal Iron Fist Volume 3: The Book of the Iron Fist HC (October 8th)
This book collects the remaining Matt Fraction-penned Iron Fist stories from his final two issues and various one-shots. This stuff isn't quite as good as the issues collected in the previous two volumes, but it's still excellent material with some amazing artwork by David Aja, Howard Chakyin, and others. I particularly like the "Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death" story reprinted here, with its self-conscious pulpiness -- including, bizarrely enough, the Frankenstein monster. The Fraction era of Iron Fist is over, but the hardcover collections will always be there to remind us of a time when Danny Rand wasn't just a guy with a high collar and tiny slippers.

#5: Northlanders Volume 1: Sven the Returned (October 1st)
When I said that Brian Wood is producing the best work of his career, I was thinking about "DMZ" a bit, but mostly I was referring to "Northlanders." I was originally going to wait for the trade on this series, but after sampling the first issue, I just couldn't give up on the monthly installments. This volume reprints the first, eight-issue arc in its entirety, with art by Davide Gianfelice. In my reviews of some of the individual issues, I threw around the word "Shakespearean," and I don't think I was exaggerating. This is a fascinating tale of Viking revenge, with a deeper thematic resonance than you'd ever imagine. This is great book.

#4: Punisher MAX: From First to Last SC (October 1st)
I've never been the world's biggest Punisher fan. I've always thought he worked best as a supporting character in the Marvel Universe, acting as a foil to the selfless heroes in costume. But this softcover collection brings together three of the best justifications for the Punisher, ever. This is also some of Garth Ennis's best work on the character, and even though he's written dozens of Punisher stories in the past decade, I don't think any of them match the quality of these three. In this volume, you get a succinct and effective look at Punisher's origin, a great Punisher-in-prison story, and, my favorite, "Punisher: The End," with art by Richard Corben. "Punisher: The End" is quintessential Punisher: bleak and unforgiving, and darkly hilarious. I honestly think this is the only Punisher book anyone would ever need.

#3: Scalped Volume 3: Dead Mothers (October 1st)
"Scalped" is my favorite monthly comic these days, and "Dead Mothers" is the best arc so far. Jason Aaron is gaining increased prominence in the Marvel Universe and I hope some of his "Black Panther" readers give his Vertigo work a chance, because "Scalped" is a great comic, full of pain and despair but it's always shockingly powerful instead of leaden and "important." It's an undercover crime drama at its core, but its so much more than that: it's an exploration into cultural identity, power, and family. It's not an action comic, but it's not short on violence. I love it, and I think everyone should be reading it.

#2: Hellboy Library Volume 2 (October 15th)
I've never immersed myself into Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" landscape. I've read every "Hellboy" comic ever published, but I see them as artistic exercises more than I see them as compelling stories. To me, they are a bit stilted, a bit too reliant on an abstruse mythology, to be interesting on the narrative level. But, boy, do I love Mignola's artwork. So, when I bought the first "Hellboy Library" volume, I thought I would be only interested in it as an art book, but I found that the larger size and superior printing drew me into the story. It was as if my inability to find a way into the stories was the result of looking at Mignola's expansive world through the keyhole of the single issues. Now that I've seen the work in this oversized format, I can appreciate the art and the story. So "Hellboy Library Volume 2" is a must-buy for me, and I think you'll feel the same. It finally gives the stories the room they need to blow your mind.

#1: Elektra by Frank Miller Omnibus HC (October 8th)
This book has already been delayed once or twice, and I don't know if it will actually show up on comic shop shelves in October, but it is, by far, the book I'm most looking forward to this fall. I own "Elektra: Assassin" in two formats already, and I have the "Elektra Lives" hardcover, but I still want to see how these stories, and others, look collected in a giant omnibus edition. Plus, we get some Frank Miller stories from "Bizarre Adventures" and "What If?" -- stories that I have never read before. I'm mostly buying this just to have a hardcover version of "Elektra: Assassin," though, which I think is a brilliant, completely insane, collaboration between Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. It's the kind of story that was so revolutionary than nobody even tried to mimic it, even to this day. If you've never read it, you're in for something strange and wonderful. If you have read it, you're probably looking forward to the omnibus as much as I am.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes." More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  ronin, marvel boy, punisher, iron fist, hercules

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