Comic book critics have a tendency to over-review #1 issues. With good reason, I suppose, as the first installment of a series is generally a jumping on point read far more than future issues, and, presumably, one that more people want to read informed takes about before deciding whether it’s worth their $4, or whatever.
I get that, but I have an aversion to putting #1 issues on this list, unless they really earn it. I don’t want to reward potential over a solid track record. Besides, I don’t write real-time reviews aimed at helping decide what books to buy. I write retrospectives on what did and didn’t work each month, sometimes not until weeks after said month has ended (ahem, this month).
Maybe, my thinking goes, such pieces will help influence decisions about what to keep on a pull list. That would be rad. Really, though, I just try to discuss what is and is not working in the industry. It’s a conversation that’s particularly relevant now, with reports suggesting comic sales are on pace to finish 10 percent lower than they did in 2016. So yeah, while series like Kid Lobotomy, Wildstorm: Michael Cray, and Slots all launched in October with strong debuts, you won’t find them here. Instead, I’ve gone with two concluding issues for great runs, two issues from series that seem to be hitting their strides, and...oh snap, a #1. It’s a weird #1, though. Not technically a debut...ah, let’s just get into it.
5. Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil #1
I know what the cover says, but this isn’t a real #1. It’s not a jumping on point, like, at all. It’s actually the first of a four-part interlude within Jeff Lemire’s superhero deconstruction, Black Hammer, which just finished a brilliant 13-issue run with Dark Horse Comics in September, concluding in a way that (cliche alert) left us with more questions than answers. But I won’t get into plot here.
What I loved about Black Hammer, and by extension the “first” issue of Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil (perfect name for a comic, btw) is the subversion of the mood of traditional superhero deconstructions like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, both of which are exceedingly grim. That’s not to say Black Hammer is cheery or optimistic. Far from. Its prevailing tone is somber. Those classic works, in spite of their realism, still trade in excitement, but this is a subdued story about purgatory, about dedicating one’s life to others and as a result being lost, possibly imprisoned. It’s a story in which what’s NOT on the page speaks volumes, like, for example, how there are next to no fight scenes.
Black Hammer is a mystery, so I could be way off, but my take is Lemire is concerned more with implications. He’s asking if violence is ever justified, if it is ever righteous enough to come without a steep price. It’s a theme that has recurred in his recent work, specifically in the excellent 2015 Image Comics mini-series Plutona, which turns a lens on readers who exalt superheros, and in his even better original graphic novel Roughneck, which does the same for hockey fans (and which Lemire both wrote and drew, while continuing to produce several high quality monthly comics...don’t think too long about that).
I’m in on Black Hammer until the end, and I highly suggest you get with it, too. Once this mini wraps up, I fully expect a return to the main plotline, likely with a new #1 that’s also not really a #1.
4. Royal City #6
Speaking of work Jeff Lemire both wrote and drew, the next comic here is Royal City #6. This is also a somber book, with nothing cartoony about it. This is, simply put, one of the most outwardly-personal serialized stories from a major publisher, and I’m continually surprised to see it stocked at high volume in local comic shops alongside tights and spaceships and time travellers.
Royal City landed on my list after I was wondering if Lemire would be interested in continuing past the first five issues. These are slice of life stories, tied thematically (by loss, nostalgia, love of music) rather than by grand plotlines. The first arc was poignant and haunting, and I wasn’t sure where the story would go. The answer, turns out, is an obvious one: the same place, only deeper.
I’ve also been impressed with how well this book uses the graphic medium. With the possible exception of Grass Kings (a kindred spirit to Royal City in some ways), no book right now is better using the flexibility of hand-drawn images to convey losses that characters hold tight, with visual representations of phantom loved ones blending seamlessly into the current lives their absences have so greatly impacted. To have a protagonist talking to his dead brother all the time would take viewers out of a film, but it’s a perfect fit for comic book storytelling.
3. Paper Girls #16
Brian K. Vaughan’s body of work is among the most impressive of any writer in comics. He’s not as prolific a creator as Lemire (who is?), but his career is filled with landmark, influential series that have reached beyond the insularity of comics to win fans in the mainstream, like Runaways (coming soon to Hulu), Y: The Last Man, and Saga, an issue of which made my favorites list last month.
Vaughan has earned our trust, which is why I never worried when Paper Girls began with muddled narrative clarity. None of Vaughan’s other series had been so hard to decipher early — hell, Saga arguably has the best narration in the history of the medium — so I figured withholding was intentional and destined to be used to great effect. Plus, Cliff Chiang’s artwork was sharp and compelling. And guess what, looks like my figuring was right!
Paper Girls #16 is the start of a new arc in which the reasons for the adventure seem poised to get clearer. I’ve long suspected the letters page of being a clue, oscillating from a bygone-era male paperboy voice to a modern (possibly futuristic) female voice that describes print as anachronistic and dead. Plus, whether or not the window has closed to get a membership card to the paper delivery guild seems to fluctuate wildly. That’s got to be significant. Theorizing aside, this issue was great because it naturally delivered the first character with an interest in figuring out the time struggle our namesake paper girls have been engaged with for the past 15 issues. I can’t wait to learn all that she knows.
2. Victor LaValle’s Destroyer #6
I’ve been aware of Victor LaValle for some time through literary friends and fiction circles, but didn’t know he wrote (or had interest in writing) comics. It’s not surprising. In fact, many of my favorite literary writers either dabble in or have been influenced by the medium (Junot Diaz, Mat Johnson, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Benjamin Percy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to name a few). So, based on the creator’s reputation, I pre-ordered Victor LaValle’s Destroyer months before the first issue came out.
Now that it’s over, I’m excited I did. I try to keep my comic consumption to 75 titles a month (I know, how noble of me) and what first drew me into this book was LaValle’s clear obsession with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which shapes this narrative. What kept me reading was the characterization and thematic exploration of the ongoing American police violence against young black men. LaValle’s story, spread over six issues, is exciting on a surface level, too, so much so that by the time the emotional scope becomes evident and you realize the cost paid by the family at the center of the story, it’s entirely too late to avoid being devastated, especially if you’ve been following the news. It’s a poignant and expert bit of storytelling.
Last month, #5 could have just as easily made the list, but I knew the end was coming in October and wanted to hold off until it had been completed, sort of like how the academy awards waited for the last movie to give best picture to Lord of the Rings. I also want to note that Boom Studios has been putting out great, creator-driven work as of late, titles like Mech Cadet Yu and Grass Kings, and Destroyer is part of that wave. So yeah, if you haven’t been reading it, I highly suggest making it a point to pick up the trade.
1. Silver Surfer #14
At my top spot this month is the finale issue of writer Dan Slott and artist Mike Allred’s run on Silver Surfer, which started back in March of 2014 and saw the duo put out 29 phenomenal issues, some of which were innovative (the endless Silver Surfer #11 from the Marvel Now run, namely) and all of which were filled with Slott’s ambitious emotional concepts and Allred’s incredible eye for pop art.
The release schedule for this title was sporadic, and I often assumed (correctly) that each issue would be a month late, minimum, but when they arrived it became evident that the extra time (which Slott has said was his fault, always) was put to good use. I’ll really miss this book, and, to be honest, I can't intellectualize much more beyond that.
This Silver Surfer run accomplished one of the most difficult feats in modern superhero comics: it gave us (cliche alert!) a rich tapestry of installments driven by character, while at the same time serving as a set of contained chapters that could be appreciated for individual merits. My favorite was the penultimate Silver Surfer #13, which was about our human desire to share life with a deeply beloved partner, all while knowing time will eventually claim one of us, knowing how painful that day will be and not caring. It drove me to tears with its beauty. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend $3.99.