Belated Comics First Looks

It’s difficult to time my First Look comic reviews right. Ideally, I’ll discuss them after the first few issues, but by the time I can group several related ones into an article, they may be older. I now have several comics that are overdue for a First Look. The only thing tying these together is that they are non-superhero (and non-DC/Marvel) comics that are bucking the trend of indies coming out as miniseries. Also, they’re all close to a year old. Better late than never, right?

(The other difficulty with my First Looks is predicting which comics will last so long that I shouldn’t wait for the end. For example, my early review of Snarked! ended up being two-thirds of the way through the series. Rather than writing a new review, I just added final thoughts to that article. I’ve made guesses here, such as thinking that Dark Horse’s latest Conan title can wait until the end for a review. Time will tell.)


cover to Courtney Crumrin #1

Courtney Crumrin

Courtney Crumrin

(Based on issues #1-8)

After years of near-inactivity, Ted Naifeh’s goth fairy tale is now a full-color monthly series! This is great news: At first glance, Courtney Crumrin appeared to be a sort of anti-Harry Potter for bitter loners, telling stories in which stupid and popular people got punished for their selfishness. But as time went on, it began to question the magical heroine’s own character, suggesting that maybe she needed to grow up and learn that people deserved her help and the benefit of the doubt. Naifeh’s art, which was both clean and nightmarishly-evocative, was perfect for a story of “night things” creeping around the borders of our solid reality. (And the new colors don’t hurt at all.)

This new series is off to a strong start, with a fast-changing plot that makes it clear the series is not going to stick to a safe status quo. It’s gone in a couple unexpected directions already, and I have no idea where Courtney will be by the end of the year.

The first two issues take pains to introduce the story through the eyes of a new girl who proves to be an interesting contrast to Courtney. These are excellent issues, both because of their new approach to the “humanity vs. goth aloofness” theme and because the new viewpoint provides a great introduction to the world. Strangely, though, this stops being new reader-friendly in issue #3, when suddenly the characters start dropping frequent references to past stories. By now, it seems like every significant character and event from old Courtney Crumrin comics has been mentioned. There is generally enough context to keep new readers from being lost, but it doesn’t always provide a reason for them to care. That’s a shame, because this series seemed like the perfect chance for Courtney Crumrin to find the new readers it deserves.

Grade: B+


cover to The Massive #1

The Massive

The Massive

(Based on issues #1-7)

With DMZ done, Brian Wood has started another series that looks at his political concerns through a near-future speculative story. In this case, what happens to a group of ocean-based environmental activists after the end of the world? Does their mission still matter once all the disasters they were warning about have come to pass? It’s named The Massive, after the group’s ship group that went missing during “The Crash”. The main characters are the crew of its sister ship, trying to track The Massive down. However, their daily life is more concerned with survival, as well as debates about whether they should be willing to fight. (The leader, Callum Israel, is an ex-mercenary who has since renounced violence, even though his activist group was often accused of terrorism. So most of the crew is capable of defending themselves, and the only question is if they will.)

Kristian Donaldson’s art is detailed, but feels a little static for people and their surroundings. However, it is great when she details the ships, ad hoc communities, and tools of this post-apocalyptic world. It also makes the scenes from The Crash the most effective part of the series: Everything around the world went wrong in a matter of months, and no one knows why. That explanation justifies the isolated cast and drastic measures needed to survive.

Wood does best when he fleshes out those ideas, though, and stumbles when he needs to build a story around them. Characters feel simple and lack subtleties, and it is clear enough which ones will resort to violence that there is no tension around this pacifist theme. The ship shows up in new ports regularly, giving Wood a chance to build his world, but it feels arbitrary to see them near Alaska at the end of one issue, in the Arabian Sea the next, and exploring an Antarctic base on the next (especially when the running theme is about their lack of fuel). Conflicts are resolved either because Callum’s steely determination shuts down the violent threats around him, or because other people are kick-ass soldiers when he isn’t around. (Or, in one case, a woman performs super-human feats underwater, explaining that you can’t die if “the sea still has a use for you”.)

The recurring themes and tossed-off ideas are interesting. The story isn’t. This has been my experience with Wood’s stories before, and the people who stick with them apparently find a lot of depth. Once again, though, I’m not convinced to take the plunge.

Grade: C


cover to Mind Mgmt #1

Mind Mgmt

Mind Mgmt

(Based on issues #1-6, and the #0 special published since then.)

One thing is undeniable about Mind Mgmt: This is a labor of love, crammed full of as much content as possible. The margins of each page come from this secret government agency’s field guide, and the inside covers have bonus comics about the feats of ESP done by their members. The back covers are even fake ads with “hidden” messages for Mind Mgmt agents. It’s especially impressive that Matt Kindt is writing and drawing this while also writing comics for DC.

I’m not sure what to think of the story yet, though. It starts with a compelling mystery that introduces an innocent woman to agents of this shadow group, but the first arc ends with a twist that leaves us unsure where things will go next. That uncertainty is often a good thing, but here we’re left with the suspicion that none of the plot matters. We had an introduction, but it may be to the theme only. And thematically, this world is filled with characters too strong to defeat and powers basically guaranteed to drive the story with out-of-nowhere twists. Fortunately, the deus ex machina of this first story was well-crafted, despite being arbitrary. This was followed by issue #0 (constructed largely from previously-published promotional material), and the series is now taking a couple months off while Kindt prepares the next dense issues.

I may still be undecided, but it will be interesting to see how this turns out. Kindt uses a formal nine-panel grid structure with his loose, dreamlike artwork, leaving this story free to go wherever he wants. For better or for worse, it certainly will.

Grade: C+


cover to Popeye #1

Popeye

Popeye

(Based on issues #1-9)

I never paid much attention to Popeye before, but I do follow just about everything that Roger Langridge writes. It turns out that his acerbic wit and tendency towards vaudevillian stories make him the perfect candidate to introduce Popeye to the modern world. Or at least, I assume he’s doing a perfect introduction, but I don’t have any old stories to compare it to.

However, each issue of Popeye so far has been full of innocent fun, much like my childhood memories of curling up with old Carl Barks comics. But while those Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories were firmly planted in a cartoon world, Popeye provides a colorful cast of characters full of cultural signifiers of working-class life from a century ago. That feels just as fantastical now, especially when given a child-friendly sheen and mixing in ridiculous, almost magical realist, elements.

Langridge has made the characters understandable and fun, so that any issue can stand alone for new readers. The rotating cast of artists (which only rarely includes Langridge) provide a very consistent visual feel, with my only complaint being that the settings feel pretty plain. However, this seems true to the spirit of a classic comic in almost every way, and there are no obvious signs that these aren’t actually from generations past.

The new Popeye is an IDW comic, though, which means that it has a $4 price tag. That’s unfortunate for comics that are, ultimately, fun but slight. While they haven’t gotten repetitive at all (a far cry from the cartoons I remember!), it also doesn’t seem like Langridge is going to strike out for truly original territory. I doubt that most people will want to keep buying this every month. The saving grace is that, as I mentioned before, all issues stand alone without any trouble. When you could pick up any copy that your comic shop has on the shelves, there’s no reason not to check out this stuck-out-of-time treasure. You can keep buying it at whatever frequency you feel like, and it will be enjoyable at that pace.

Grade: B-

 
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