"Dark Horse Presents" is a title that, month after month, delivers a surprisingly strong and increasingly varied group of comic stories in its 80 pages. Is there ever an issue that you'll love every single feature? Probably not. But there's always more than enough to make you feel like you've received your money's worth, and then some more to boot.
"Dark Horse Presents" #11 has three new features begin this month, along with two stand-alone stories. Francesco Francavilla's "The Black Beetle" opens the issue, mixing World War II forces with masked heroes and portable helicopters. The art in "The Black Beetle" looks fantastic -- Francavilla's art reminds me a lot of Joe Kubert's in how he puts together realistic characters with a good sized ink line and meticulous shading -- and the basic ideas behind "The Black Beetle" are good. The script feels a little under par in places, though; a lot of the dialogue doesn't feel natural and comes across as stilted. There are ways to get the exposition across without sounding so formal, but it's a skill that hopefully over time will come to Francavilla. Still, it's fun enough that I'm happy to keep reading.
Tim Seeley and Victor Drujiniu tackle a Mike Richardson creation in "The Occultist," although having missed the introductory one-shot a year or so ago, I left this story still unsure who exactly the character is and what motivates him, other than it involving occult creatures. Still, Seeley's piece of dialogue, "Hello?! Hands full of baby!" by way of excuse for not intervening made me laugh and Drujiniu's art is fine. It's not an instant grabber, but it's inoffensive enough that you'll want to see if it improves.
John Arcudi brings back his long-time "Dark Horse Presents" character of "The Creep" here aided by artist Jonathan Case and I'd forgotten how good those stories were back in the day. What's great is that you don't have to read the old ones to enjoy this -- I must admit I don't remember anything about them other than that they existed -- thanks to Arcudi's strong script which introduces the slightly sad-sack investigator Oxel Karnhus as well as his latest client. Oxel reacts more than acts in this initial chapter and several of the pages are devoted to a woman from his past explaining her own situation, but you still get an instant grasp for the general tone of "The Creep" and just what to expect in this drama. Case's art is a great match for Arcudi's script (and it's also a good reminder that I still need to read "The Green River Killer" which he also illustrated at Dark Horse), looking very human and grounded. Case isn't afraid to draw Oxel as a slightly lumpy, unattractive guy, but he can still slip in moments of beauty like the flowering tree outside of Stephanie's son's window. Add in a flashback sequence that shifts art style to a rougher, more vibrant look and you end up with a must-read-more first chapter.
Frank J. Barbiere and Luke Radl serve up "The White Suits" in "Dark Horse Presents" #11, which gets the coveted final-position slot for the issue and lets the comic end on a strong note. Set in 1988 Moscow as its citizens struggle to survive, Barbiere writes about a young woman whose courier job might just get her killed as she delivers to a dangerous situation. Barbiere uses his eight pages to tell a complete story that maps out the rise and fall of the action quite effectively. While I'm not often a fan of spot-coloring, Radl nails it here; the black and white look makes everything feel instantly drab and lifeless and the momentary glimpses of color are eye-catching and effective. I'd absolutely read more by these creators.
Andrew Vachss contributes a prose short story titled "Pig" with two spot illustrations by Geof Darrow. Getting new work from Darrow is always welcome and these two illustrations definitely are appreciated. They're perhaps a little cheerier than Vachss' story would indicate, but at the same time they're such good illustrations that the disconnect feels like nitpicking. Vachss' story itself is in many ways more of a character sketch than anything else, a character named Viper explaining his relationship to Pig and how their friendship both began and ended. Like so many of Vachss' short stories, it makes you want to know more about the lives of those involved; he's good at keeping his readers wanting more, and that's a good sign of a writer who knows just how to spin a story. It's certainly a grim piece, but it's effective.
Five returning features also show up in "Dark Horse Presents" #11. Evan Dorkin serves up a helping of his "House of Fun," primarily in his twisted take on comic strips but also bookended with "Milk & Cheese" pages. Not all of the strips work (those who are unfamiliar with Ayn Rand's teachings might be less than thrilled with the "Howard Roark" entries), but between Mecha Paula Deen, a great take on the "different strokes for different folks" axiom, and "Rejected Make-a-Wish Applicants" it'll be hard to not laugh. The closing "Milk & Cheese" page in particular is wonderful, detailing a day in the life of the violence-causing, alcohol-drinking carton of hate and wedge of spite. "America's Got Brain Damage," indeed.
Also strong this month is Carla Speed McNeil's "Finder: Third World," which continues its shift from what first seemed to be a series of unconnected delivery stories into something far greater for Jaeger. His finding himself outside of Anvard and in the "third world" is intriguing, even as the main plot begins to kick in. It's easy to look back now and see how those early misadventures in this story were part of something larger, to help emphasize an important choice he makes halfway through this latest chapter. Up until now "Finder: Third World" was fun, but now I'm loving this new saga.
Of the remaining three serials, two of them are fine (the just-wrapping-up "Amala's Blade" and the relatively new "Criminal Macabre" story), with just Neal Adams' never-ending "Blood" continuing to outstay its welcome. With eighty pages of comics and only 8 of them being worth skipping, though, that's a great hit rate. If you aren't reading "Dark Horse Presents" yet, this is a good a spot as any to begin.