Halloween Scene: Vertigo Visions – Phantom Stranger

phantom stranger one shotOne of my favorite things about comics is when companies allow their characters to be experimented with in wild and different ways. It worked really well with Afterlife With Archie and was also a huge staple of DC’s Vertigo books for a while. Concepts like Sandman, Black Orchid and even Prez received more serious looks thanks to the imprint.

And so did the Phantom Stranger in this one shot, called Vertigo Visions – Phantom Strange written by one-time Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney and drawn by Sandman Mystery Theatre and B.P.R.D. artist Guy Davis. I knew nothing about it, but Davis’ involvement was enough for me to spend a quarter on it.

As it turns out, this one-shot is worth far more than that. The story follows a woman named Naomi Walker who’s on her first day working in an asylum called Paradise Gardens. The more she gets used to the surroundings on her first night, however, the sooner she realizes that something is very wrong with the situation. As you and Naomi ease into the story, you know something is wrong, you just don’t know how wrong it really is until things pick up.

While Naomi is definitely the main character of this tale, it all revolves around the Phantom Stranger, or at least the two parts of him featured in the story. She’s the one who brings us into the mystifying action and is also the one who is truly in danger from the supernatural demonic threats hidden in Paradise Gardens.

I won’t go too much further into details, but really appreciated how this story takes your basic creepy asylum tale and then just goes nuts with it. At first it feels like something Vincent Price could have starred in but it turns into something more akin to Clive Barker’s dark and twisted worlds. Kwitney does more than impress as the story transforms into something horrendous and Naomi strives to survive it all and Davis’ artwork actually made my skin crawl a few times during my read through.

I will definitely keep this issue in my collection, most likely throwing it in a bag and board for easy storage on my trade shelves. It also reminded me that I have the VV issue starring Doctor Occult somewhere around here and will try to dig it out by the end of the month. If you see this issue around and like monstrous horror, grab it and give it a read.

My 12 Favorite Trade Reading Experiences Of 2012

I write about a lot of trades on this site, about two a week if I’m on my game. But, I actually read a lot more than that. So, this particular list is the 12 books or runs that I enjoyed the most reading or re-reading this year. Most of them have been covered on the site, but others have not. I’ll give the latter a few more words than the former, but hope you enjoy.
outsiders looking for trouble¬† I read all of Judd Winick’s run of Outsiders this year, but didn’t write about it? Why? Well, it was a pretty big reading project, something that makes it harder for me to write about as a whole. But, I still really enjoyed this reading experience. Winick brings a realness to superhero comics without letting it get too in the way (if that makes sense). I know a lot of people think he forces issues into books, but I think these are the kinds of things that should be talked about and seen. Anyway, this was a fun superhero reading experience that made me remember how fun the DCU was back when this book and Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans launched. Good times. starman-omnibus-vol-3I haven’t written about James Robinson’s Starman because I haven’t finished the last omnibus yet. I haven’t finished it because I kind of don’t want to finish it and I also need quiet time to really sit down and finish it. This series is up there with Preacher and Sandman for me in my list of all time favorites. It lives in my heart and I was elated to discover that I still like it. This is what shared universe superhero comics could and should be. legend of grimjack volume 1I know I just read the first two volumes of Grimjack, but the experience has stayed with me. I love that world and keep thinking of great ways it could be interpreted for different genres. Right now I’m thinking about a Crackdown/Amazing Spider-Man style video game set in Cynosure where you take on jobs or just spend your day drinking in Munden’s Bar. If you dig Hellboy, B.P.R.D. or 100 Bullets, I think you’ll enjoy Grimjack. Frankenstein Agent Of S.H.A.D.E. Volume 1 War of the MonstersI’ve had a lot of different feelings about DC’s New 52. At first I was upset that “my” versions of the characters would only survive in my trade shelves and long boxes. Then I realized that I don’t really read new issues anymore and I still have my collection (and books I’ve never read from that era) to enjoy. I also realized that I’m almost 30 and have better things to worry about. With that behind me, I was able to dive into various trades with a mostly clear head and enjoyed them for the most part. I appreciate how DC was attempting to hit all different kinds of genres and audiences, of course, not all of those attempts were successful. The least successful tries in my opinion, though, were the books that just failed to set up a basic reason why that book existed aside from “to make money.” I still have a pile of them to read and am getting a sense of the new U, which is kind of fun. secret avengers vol 1 mission to marsEven though I read the second arc of Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers first and the first second, I had a great time reading this “black ops” take on superheroes. Bru writing Captain America/Steve Rogers is always aces in my book, but throwing in a lot of other street level-esque characters was even cooler. I’ve only read these first two volumes, but was satisfied with Brubaker’s ability to create an enjoyable sci-fi/spy mash-up story that felt well contained while still making me want to read more. the return of king dougReturn of King Doug came out of left field for me. It was gifted to me by a pal and I knew nothing about it, but Greg Erb, Jason Oremland and Wook-Jin Clark reminded me so much of the kinds of stories I love from the 80s, but while also doing all kinds of new, funny things I enjoy. Read this now. bprd hell on earth 2 new world gods And MmonstersI’ve said this before, but one of the things I miss most about not working at Wizard anymore is access to all of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics that came out. I’m super behind, but I did get my hands on some B.P.R.D. trades this year for a little catching up (Hell On Earth: New World and Gods And Monsters). That’s still the best damn comic series around and has been for a while. hulk red hulkI don’t mind playing catch-up on some books. I’ve been super happy re-reading things like World War Hulk and catching up on Hulk, Incredible Hulk and Red Hulk this year. Super fun, popcorn books mixed with well thought out ongoing superhero tales filled with monsters? Yeah, I’m all over that. izombie vol 2 uVAmpireI read the first iZombie trade in 2011, but was delighted to get my hands on the second and third volumes in 2012. I wrote about the second one here and have a post in mind talking about the third. Anyway, this series is the rare mix of intriguing characters, wacky situations, rock solid architecture and mythology I want to study PLUS one of the greatest artists the medium has ever seen. So, so, so good. american vampire volume 1I’m pretty surprised there are two Vertigo books on here. It seemed like for a while I was reading nothing from them. Now iZombie and American Vampire are two of my faves. Then again Chris Roberson and Scott Snyder are two of the best newcomer writers around, so that’s no surprise. In this case, Snyder takes two things that have become old and boring — vampires and American history — and makes them both super interesting and intense. Can’t wait to see where the rest of this series goes.batman knightfall volume 1Batman: Knightfall Volume 1 was pure, nostalgic joy. All of the Batman comics that got me into Batman in one place in one fat volume? Yes, yes and yes. I have the second and third volumes waiting to be read. Maybe next month after knocking off a smattering of random trades I want to check out. lost_dogs_cover_sm_lgI don’t remember exactly why I didn’t write about Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs. It’s one of the few books I’ve bought through Comixology for my Kindle Fire. The long and short of it is that this story about a simpleton trying to save his family. It’s raw and rough and hits you in the gut. I don’t know if I liked the experience of reading this story, but it was certainly powerful. I can’t remember if it made me cry or not, but it came close.

I’m certain I missed a few books that I didn’t write about, but this is a pretty solid list by all accounts. I should probably branch out into more diverse trades and graphic novels — and I plan to — but what can I say? I love me some superheroes. I also happen to love all kinds of other comics, so let’s continue to make and talk about awesome comics.

B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth Trade Post: New World & Gods And Monsters

B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: New World (Dark Horse)
Written by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi, drawn by Guy Davis
Collects B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: New World #1-5 & B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: Seattle Ashcan

A month or two back I caught up on a bunch of B.P.R.D. trades. I had some extra cash from my birthday I believe and three of the volumes were cheap on Amazon, so I bought them. After tearing through those, I happened upon another sale, this one on Thwipster, that had the first two Hell on Earth volumes. I originally intended to write about the three previous volumes I read, but too much time elapsed, it stopped being fresh and I didn’t want to sully my good memories of that reading experience by trying to slog back through so soon after a first reading.

But, I read these books far more recently and would love to tell you about them. If you’re not caught up on what went on before this new storytelling volume, but a giant monster thing appeared in the middle of the U.S. and started releasing a kind of fog that’s been changing people. The B.P.R.D. are now not only far more well known to the average person because everyone saw this monster on TV, but also a part of the U.N. which puts them in charge of a much larger area with a lot more manpower.

This first volume finds entire Canadian towns disappearing and Abe Sapien heading up north to find out what’s going on. While there he runs into a familiar face SPOILER Captain Ben Daimio! I was so glad to see his return because he’s not only still fighting the good fight, but he also is just a fun, badass character who deserves more page time. The two men do their best to find the monster and put a stop to it, which winds up being a pretty sad story all around. Meanwhile, Panya keeps doing suspicious things, Devon continues to not trust Abe and Johann seems to be becoming obsessed with a potential new physical body all of which leads right into the next volume!

B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: Gods and Monsters (Dark Horse)
Written by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi, drawn by Guy Davis & Tyler Crook
Collects B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: Gods #1-3 & B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth: Monsters #1-2

The first story in this collection focuses on a group of people on the run from monsters with a future-seeing girl at the center. Abe and Devon’s tensions also come to a head with Kate forcing them to sit down and try to get through their issues. With it’s shorter issue count, this one stays very taunt and has an insane ending I won’t spoil here. I must say, I was shocked by that ending–literally open-mouthed shock–but even more so by the person who witnessed it and how they react. What is happening?! That’s the kind of ending I like!

The second story here is a two parter that took me a little more time to grasp on to. This one’s about Liz Sherman, former fire-starter and B.P.R.D. who seemingly used up all of her fire powers to kill every frog demon on earth. Now she’s apparently living in a trailer park with her husband? This is the part that threw me. Maybe I read through too quickly and didn’t catch something, but I had no idea Liz was with this guy or why she was living where she was. As you’d expect, she stumbles on a murderous cult and has to figure out how to get out of it using her training. This one ends on a double cliffhanger, the first leaving Liz in the wind, the second relating back to the previous story’s ending. I haven’t read past this book, so I have no idea what happened, but as with all Hellboy/B.P.R.D. comics, I can’t wait to see where it goes. I should also note that Monsters featured art by Tyler Crook instead of Guy Davis. I believe Davis has left the series for good (or at least for now). Not sure what happened there, but he will be missed. Crook brings a cartoonier style to the proceedings, but still keeps things in line with Davis and Mignola’s artistic vision.

Best Of The Best Trade Post: Starman Omnibus Volume 2

starman omnibus 2STARMAN OMNIBUS VOLUME 2 (DC)
Written by James Robinson, drawn by Tony Harris, Craig Hamilton, John Warkiss, Steve Yeowell, Matt Smith, JH Williams, Bret Blevins, Guy Davis, Wade von Grawbadger, Chris Sprouse and Gary Erksine
Collects Starman #17-29, Showcase ’95 #12, Showcase ’96 #4-5 & Starman Annual #1
For the secret history of how I got to read Starman for the first time, check out today’s Ad It Up which features an ad for the Starman Secret Files & Origins. After having my mind blown so many years ago by the adventures of hip new hero Jack Knight and his journey from 90s hipster to legitimate superhero, it’s actually been since then that I’ve read Starman because of the terrible way the comics were collected (yearly issues pulled out to make their own themed trades, etc.). I was really jazzed a few years ago when DC announced they were going to give this beloved series the same treatment as Jack Kirby comics and reprint everything (and I mean everything) chronologically.

starman 17I thought about saving my reread for the day I had all the Omnibi in my hands, but couldn’t resist. I tackled the first one a while back and didn’t write about it on the blog and then much later I finally got around to reading the second volume. The task is a bit daunting and a little scary because what if I don’t like it as much this time around as I did back then? I had the same fear when I reread Preacher, but I wound up liking it even more. Would that be the same case for Starman?

Mostly yes with a little bit of no. Yes because it’s still a book of amazing quality and no because it doesn’t feel quite as special because this style of storytelling has gone on to become the norm at least at DC (you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a legacy character these days) though not always done this well. While reading through this volume it hit me why the book has resonated with me so much: it’s a book that deals with all these crazy elements like supervillains and demons and magical posters, but it doesn’t let that get in the way of the characters who, after a time, don’t consider these things to be all that crazy. I don’t mean for that to sound like they see these things as blasse necessarily, just that it’s a part of everyday life for these characters, which is something that many superhero comics seem to forget. There’s a difference between boredly talking about a supervillain threat and having a normal conversation with your dad about all the villains you’re trying to keep track of.

starman 22Also, the fact remains that Starman is not really a superhero story. It’s a story about a son (Jack Knight) trying to find a relationship with his father (Ted Knight, the original Starman) and see where that relationship goes once they start having some things in common. Yes, those things happen to be fighting villains and keeping Opal City safe, but Robinson never lets that detract from the emotions and story taking place. It’s also about rehabilitation, if not redemption, especially considering the evolution of The Shade and this volume’s introduction of Bob Benetti, a villain for hire who just got out of jail and is thinking about going back to a life of crime.

The volume is jam packed with goodness, including our heroes facing a demon whose domain resides inside a poster, the first meeting between Golden Age Doctor Fate and the Shade, a pirate-themed Talking With David, Jack Knight teaming up with Wesley Dodds (the original Sandman) in modern times, the Legends Of The Dead Earth annual which was actually pretty fun, Jack doing a solid for the original Mist, a Christmas issue, the trippy origins of the blue skinned Starman Mikaal and the introduction of a lot of time-displaced citizens to Opal. There’s a lot going on, but you get the feeling that Robinson had a game plan from the get go. The poster story is introduced fairly early on in the book, but not really focused on and solved until a while later. Yes there are arcs and more finite storylines, but it’s not like a comic today where it feels like every six issues something new happens because it’s supposed to. This flows like a rive and takes all kinds of twists and turns that are a delight to follow. There’s also lots and lots of references to upcoming storylines.

starman 28And it’s not like just Jack Knight gets the best moments. The last two issues¬† of this collection are some of my favorites and involved Mikaal in the 70s and Bobo Benetti dealing with a moral quandary that ends in a pretty great and unexpected way. This book contains one of the few occasions in which I didn’t want to erase the Royal Flush Gang from existence.

I can’t believe I’ve gone this far without talking about Tony Harris’ art. I mistakenly thought that he did all of the issues until he eventually left the book, but there are plenty of other artists jumping in here and there to do sequences, short stories, fill-ins or random other stories like the Showcase bits. Of course, seeing earlier Guy Davis and JH Williams III is a lot of fun. There are very few art missteps in this whole volume, which is impressive considering how much ground the book covers.

In addition to the reprinted comics which I love, the book also has a great deal of extras. There’s a forward by Harris (whose style has completely changed since the 90s) about his first meeting with Robinson while on a kind of press tour that’s really interesting and a nice look into the world of comic book collaboration. The back of the book has a series of journal entries by the Shade that I didn’t read through, a look at many of DC Direct’s Starman-related products (I want to get my hands on that Tim Bruckner statue) and then Robinson’s ongoing Time’s Past series of afterwards which include a story by story rundown of where he was coming from, what inspired him and/or what he was trying to accomplish with that story. I would anxiously flip to the back after finishing a story to get some inside scoop on the creative process and then jump back to read the next story.

zero month posterIt’s almost a little sad reading this book for a few reasons. First off, Robinson doesn’t seem to have been able to get back up to this high level of writing since, though I do appreciate him using Mikaal in Justice League, but that book’s got a mountain of problems well before Robinson came along. It’s also kind of sad to think that this comic probably wouldn’t get made today. At least not by DC or Marvel, though it is kind of funny that even Starman rolled out of a big event (in this case Zero Hour). Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but a book that’s so densely packed and featuring a cast that includes a hipster, an old man, a gay blue alien, a few Golden Age villains-turned good guys and a family of Irish cops doesn’t sound like the kind of thing the Big Two would sign off on now. You might say “Well, it could be an Image book,” which is true, but what makes Starman so special is that Robinson was able to carve out this little world for himself inside the greater DCU. He pulled from what else was going on around him, using new and established elements and wove them all together into this great thing that’s hard to really describe. Sure, it would have been cool as a book set in it’s own universe, but we wouldn’t have the Shade or the Scalphunter ties or the occasional visits with other heroes and, at least to this longtime comic book fan, that makes the book all the better.

Trade Post: Death Of Captain America Vol. 3, Walking Dead Vol. 10 & B.P.R.D. The Warning

THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN AMERICA VOL. 3: THE MAN WHO BOUGHT AMERICA (Marvel)
Written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Steve Epting, Luke Ross & Roberto De La Torre
Collects Captain America (current volume) #37-42
I’ve mentioned here and there how much I like Captain America, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a review on one of the trades before. Let me say this right off the bat, I think that Ed Brubaker’s Captain America is one of the best ongoing comic books ever written. I haven’t read a lot of Cap comics to compare it to, but I put it up there with some of my favorite runs of all time like Starman, Sandman and Preacher. That he’s been able to keep up such a high quality of story over so many issues, not to mention through several major events that lesser writers let screw up their flow, is ultra impressive. Brubaker’s Civil War tie-in issues are, in my opinion, better written and more logical than anything else wearing that banner. You can trust me on that one, I had to read it all while working at Wizard for an online column called Civil War Room (I’d link to it, but I think all that stuff is gone now).

I guess I should actually talk about this volume now, which I got for Christmas along with the second and third Immortal Iron Fist trades. What you have here is the second trade featuring Bucky as Captain America. We’re knee deep in the Red Skull’s plan to get his very own president and birth a new Steve Rogers thanks to his captive’s pregnancy (that would be Cap’s girl Sharon Carter). Bucky and Falcon team up and Bucky takes on the Cap from the 50s who thinks he’s Cap and is being manipulated by the Skull and Dr. Faustus. It’s kind of a hard volume to explain without spoiling everything that’s come before and after, but this book is integral for understanding the Skull’s plan and features Bucky Cap’s first real dent in those plans. Don’t bother starting with this trade (that should seem pretty obvious as it’s the eighth in the series), just do yourself a favor and get the first trade or catch up since whenever you left off because, next to Green Lantern, this is the best ongoing comic coming out right now.

I also want to mention the art, specifically that of Steve Epting. I love his simple, but elegant style. All the figures have this amazing presence on the page that is only added to thanks to the inking and coloring. I really wish they would have gone to him for Captain America: Reborn instead of Bryan Hitch. I have never understood Hitch’s appeal and really dislike his art. Plus, I feel like Epting is just a better artist all around and should have gotten the chance to draw Steve’s return. Not that it really matters because the ending has been spoiled already. Ah well, moving on.

THE WALKING DEAD VOL. 10: WHAT WE BECOME (Image)
Written by Robert Kirkman, drawn by Charlie Adlard
Collects Walking Dead #55-60
I’ve had a lot to say about Walking Dead to pretty much anyone who will listen. I have problems with some of Kirkman’s writing ticks, like how he always tells instead of shows, but this 10th volume didn’t fall into a lot of those traps, thankfully. In fact, I think this is one of the better Walking Dead trades all around. Again, the tenth volume of any comic isn’t a good place to start, but as someone who’s read most of the issues, I think it’s one of the better ones. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this one picks up right after a pretty huge tragedy in Rick’s life and he’s going a little crazy. By this point, Rick and his fellow followers have teamed up with a trio of people trying to head to Washington, D.C. in order to get in with what’s left of the government. There’s a scientist, a crazy military guy and a girl who’s in love with him. We learn more about the military guy in this issue while he, Rick and Rick’s son Carl head back to a house that Rick stopped off at on his way to find his family early in the series. It’s a pretty cool callback to a character I’m sure most people figured would never be seen again. There’s also a ton of action as this trio-turned-quartet try to outrun a horde of zombies who are all after them (we’re talking hundreds of biters). All that mixed with a fair dose of drama from some of Rick’s people (including an attempted suicide and a faction wanting to break off on their own) make for one of the more fulfilling arcs in the book’s impressive run. Oh, and, to be fair, there’s a story that the military dude tells that I’m glad didn’t have a visual flashback, it would have been ultra creepy, sad and depressing.

B.P.R.D. VOL. 10: THE WARNING (Dark Horse)
Written by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi, drawn by Guy Davis
Collects B.P.R.D.: The Warning #1-5, “Out Of Reach” from Hellboy Free Comic Book Day 2008
Haha, I just realized that all three books I’m reviewing are pretty terrible jumping-on points for potential new readers. The best I can tell you is that, these series’ are all so good, that I’ve followed them this long, going so far as to buy the trades (or finagle them whenever possible). I remember reading issues of The Warning while still at Wizard and having no freaking clue how one issue tied into the last. Part of that comes from reading upwards of 20 comics a week and part of it comes from the fast and furious approach that Mignola and Arcudi took with this trade. A lot goes on that has to do with the ever-growing war on frogs and other evil things growing in both B.P.R.D. and Hellboy miniseries’. We find out more about the mysterious Panya and Gilfryd, witness a full-on destruction of Johann Kraus’s hometown thanks to giant monster robot things built by trolls or some such and a fight between one big monster and another one being manipulated by Kraus. This trade really has everything that makes B.P.R.D. awesome, big crazy monster stuff, interpersonal character development, the progression of a gigantic storyline and great action scenes. And, you could actually do a lot worse than starting with this or any other random B.P.R.D. book. If B.P.R.D. was an ongoing, it would also be on my list of the greatest ongoing comics. Actually, I wish more companies would take this route for books that might not do as well as ongoings. I also wish they’d take a cue from Dark Horse and include the level of extras that Dark Horse does. Almost every volume has an intro by Mignola or Arcudi as well as a sketchbook in the back with designs from Mignola and whatever artist is working on it. All the Cap trade has is a “Previously In…” paragraph on the inside front cover and Walking Dead doesn’t even have the covers. And don’t worry, the next Trade Post will have more books that anyone can just pick up.