Welcome to Comics Wire, SYFY WIRE’s weekly comics column that gets at the pulse of what’s going on in comics right now. We’ve got what you need to know about huge crossovers, real-life issues facing the industry, cool first looks, the week’s hot new comics, and everything in between.
If you’re into event comics, 2020 has proven to be a fairly solid year so far thanks to stuff like Empyre at Marvel and the still-ongoing Dark Nights: Death Metal over at DC, but the year isn’t over yet. This December both Big Two publishers will launch new superhero events, and it just so happens that they’re both exploring one of my favorite tropes in all of superhero comics: The ultra-powerful, impossibly old evil being coming back to conquer everything.
Seriously, it works on me just about every time, whether it’s Marvel’s Fear Itself or DC’s Dark Nights: Metal. Just tell me some dark thing that’s been out there in the universe somplace for ages is about to bring the fight to our heroes, and I’m there, so I’m particularly excited to read these upcoming events and see what new wrinkles the creative teams can give that trope.
Marvel’s version of this, this time around, is King in Black, a crossover event written by Venom mastermind Donny Cates and drawn by his longtime Venom cohort Ryan Stegman. The idea here is simple: For a couple of years now, Stegman and Cates have been building the villain Knull — the king of all symbiotes — up to be one of the biggest, baddest antagonists in the Marvel Universe. It’s a game they’ve been laying groundwork for not just through Venom, but through connections to Jason Aaron’s years-long Thor story and the Silver Surfer: Black miniseries, and now we get to see how they execute an all-out war. On December 2, Knull brings his army to Earth, where Marvel’s heroes will have to contend with the biggest symbiote threat ever.
Over at DC, the ancient threat arrives in Endless Winter, a month-long crossover from writers Ron Marz and Andy Lanning and a host of artists illustrating various chapters across one-shots and issues of The Flash, Aquaman, Justice League, and Justice League. In this case the antagonist isn’t something that’s been building for quite as long, but it’s no less intriguing. The setup involves a battle 1,000 years ago in which some of DC’s oldest characters — including Hippolyta, Black Adam, Swamp Thing, and the Viking Prince — fought a dark Norse God named the Frost King. They won the battle, but at a terrible price, and this December the Frost King is coming to collect.
These two stories will unfold at different paces — Endless Winter aims to wrap up by the end of the year, while King in Black runs a bit longer — but the spirit is the same. These are both stories that aim to capitalize on one of my favorite things about superhero universes — that we can’t ever reach the end of them, no matter how much we explore — in very different ways with very different heroes. King in Black looks to aim for all-out horror in some places, while Endless Winter seems to lean more toward dark fantasy with its snowscapes and Justice League-heavy storytelling. I’m excited for both, and very happy that I’ll get to settle in by my fireplace with some new events comics this December.
Endless Winter launches December 1, followed by King in Black on December 2.
Back in May and June, when protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers were building, most major comics publishers made some kind of statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many promised to do more to use their publishing power to better represent marginalized voices. Last week, DC Comics made an effort to show its work with a new series that attempts to do exactly what it says in the title: Represent.
Represent! is a new digital-first series that, according to DC executive editor Marie Javins, is “designed to showcase and introduce creators traditionally underrepresented in the mainstream comic book medium.” That showcase began with a free first issue, a 10-page story titled “It’s a Bird” written by Christian Cooper, drawn by Alitha E. Martinez, and based on Cooper’s own headline-making racist encounter while birdwatching in New York City. You can read “It’s a Bird,” right now on the digital comics platform of your choice, and you definitely should. It’s a proud, emotional, and vulnerable look at the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the life of a young Black birdwatcher that says a lot in the space of just a few pages, and it’s a hell of a launch for this series.
According to DC’s announcement, we’ll have to wait until 2021 for subsequent chapters of Represent!, but getting this story out now shows the publisher is heading in the right direction. I’d like to see more publishing initiatives like this, and bigger pushes from within DC to get underrepresented creators on major titles, but this is a very nice start.
You’ve probably heard it said that comedy and horror are siblings, or at the very least cousins. They live next to each other in our brains, and it’s kind of impossible to fake a response to them. When comedy works, you laugh, when horror works you’re scared, and sometimes the way both genres set those reactions up make them indistinguishable. It’s all about putting the pieces in place and then paying that off.
That’s why, when horror and comedy work in tandem, something special very often happens. That’s what writer Eliot Rahal and artist Mattia Monaco are after with Knock Em Dead, a new series from AfterShock Comics that merges horror and comedy into one story. The series, hitting stores this December, will draw on Rahal’s own experiences in stand-up comedy, and follow a struggling comedian who tries to pursue his dreams until an accident changes everything, and brings new meaning to the word “dying” when it comes to the stand-up stage.
“Knock Em Dead is about fame, family and addiction,” Rahal said in the announcement for the series earlier this week. “It’s a supernatural horror story about a stand-up comedian and the grind of trying to make it — the mistakes you make and the people you hurt along the way. I love stories about the young artist trying to get big. However, we’ve seen so many different versions of it. And I wanted to make sure Knock Em Dead walked a different way. And thanks to Mattia and Matt’s work. It does. This is something scary. And it feels real.”
Exactly how Knock Em Dead will merge supernatural horror and the stand-up comedy world remains a bit of a mystery, but the preview pages released by AfterShock are enough to convince me that it’s worth checking out. The first issue drops December 2, and I can’t wait to see how this particular conceptual blend pays off.
New Comics: Zdarsky’s new series, an incredible graphic novel adaptation, and more!
Now that we’ve talked about some news, let’s talk about the new comics that got me excited this week.
Stillwater #1: If there’s a kind of comics story Chip Zdarsky can’t tell, he either hasn’t found it yet or he’s astonishingly good at faking it. The writer and artist broke through in a big way thanks to his work co-creating the hilarious and poignant Sex Criminals, and he’s since found more success pouring his particular brand of emotionally honest but zany humor into titles like Howard the Duck and Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. Then came Daredevil, and Zdarsky’s emphatic proof that he could go dark with his genre stories without ever losing a deeply rooted sense of heart.
Which brings us to Stillwater, Zdarsky and artist Ramon Perez’s new high-concept horror book about a town where no one in the city limits seems to be able to die. It’s a great concept, and the instinct here to introduce us to the title town through a non-resident who visits thanks to an inheritance is a note-perfect way in, but that’s not why Stillwater works, and it’s especially not why this delightful slow-burn of a first issue works. This is a classic case of a story that’s all about the confidence of execution, and in that regard Zdarsky, Perez and company are off to a great start.
Rather than simply launching right into the hook of the story, Zdarsky’s script takes its time, introducing us to characters who are roped almost immediately into a perfect horror story setup. There’s a firing, a strange letter, a road trip, and a town that doesn’t seem to be on any actual map, which are all great little teasers that something very strange is about to happen. Perez’s art, bolstered by tremendous color work from Mike Spicer, builds this atmosphere perfectly. The closer we get to Stillwater, the darker and stranger the panels become. There’s a sense of things coming unhinged slowly, often hilariously, and with just enough tension to make you a little uneasy about turning the page. By the time this issue ended, I was absolutely hooked. This is an outstanding first issue that’s patient with its horror, waiting until just the right time to spring it dark surprises on you, and I can’t wait to read the next chapter.
Slaughterhouse Five: I don’t envy anyone taking on the task of adapting a writer like Kurt Vonnegut, but if anyone could pull it off it was going to be Ryan North. His brain, as he’s proven time and time again on everything from Dinosaur Comics to Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, just works differently when it comes to these things, and it feels like a perfect fit for Vonnegut’s brand of storytelling. Hearing about this incarnation of Slaughterhouse Five felt like a great match. Reading the finished graphic novel, though, reveals it to be more than a great fit for an adaptation. It’s a masterpiece both as a translation of a literary classic and as an original piece of comics storytelling all its own.
To translate Vonnegut’s classic anti-war tale to the comics page, North teamed with artist Albert Monteys, who had to both find the real human heart of the characters and worlds of Vonnegut’s story and North’s script and deliver on the strangeness of the tale of a man “unstuck” in time. North’s script is predictably brilliant, witty, human, and absolutely unlike anything else you’ll read in comics this year, but I honestly feel like Monteys had the harder job this time around. In these pages he has to do things like draw out diagrams of the contens of a soldier’s pockets, design alien species, draw a man in several different time periods at once on the same page, and through it all retain a sense of humor about the whole thing. Basically he has to direct a Kurt Vonnegut story, and somehow he nails every single panel.
Slaughterhouse Five is an absolute triumph for North and Monteys, a stunning comic that rises to meet the reputation of its genre-bending, singular source material to become a singular work in its own right. Don’t miss it.
Iron Man #1: We’ve had a hearty handful of new Iron Man first issues ever since Tony Stark became a movie star 12 years ago, but I can’t recall one being as direct in its mission statement as this one, from writer Christopher Cantwell and artist Cafu. This, we’ve been told for months now, is a new, stripped-down approach to the Armored Avenger, one that rids Tony Stark of all of his cool toys and takes him back to basics. This is certainly not the first time we’ve been promised that approach with a superhero book, and as with most things in Big Two comics it turns out to be less about what you promise you’ll do and more about how you do it. With that in mind, how do you reinvent Iron Man, the perpetual reinvention machine of the Marvel Universe, and make it mean more than a new suit, or an old suit in a new light?
In the hands of Cantwell and Cafu, that question is answered with style, with action, and with a very clear mission statement that also has a very clear understanding of who Tony Stark is and why he thinks the way he does. Yes, over the course of this series debut we do get to see Tony divesting himself of a great many things that he’s accrued throughout his adventures, and yes we do see that back-to-basics armor come out of the case, but that’s not really what the book is about. Those are the toys leaving the toybox. Where this book really shines — all through the precise, sleek, and effortlessly cool visuals delivered by Cafu — is in the understanding that ditching the toys doesn’t really change Tony Stark. For that to happen, other things beneath the suit of armor have to be tinkered with, and the question this book raises is whether or not Tony has what it takes to do that. It’s an ambitious, fun, swagger-packed first pitch, and if this creative team pulls this story off in subsequent issues it’ll be one of the must-read superhero runs of the year.
Detective Comics #1027: The folks at DC Comics have made a pretty robust habit out of using anniversaries to release giant anthology issues in recent years, whether that means actual anniversary books or simply benchmark birthdays for major characters. In this case we’re talking about the 1,000th issue of Detective Comics since that book became Batman’s launch title in 1939, and as is true with all of this big all-star anthology books, the key to success is showcasing all the many ways in which the core characters can work within the context of the chosen comic.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise to me that the most successful stories in this massive 140-page anniversary issue are the ones that put the “Detective” of the title front and center, whether that means a modern take on classic Bat-family concepts, a pulpy throwback that speaks to the character’s long history in the DC Universe, or a tightly focused little Batarang of a story that gets at something essential about the Caped Crusader’s supporting cast.
That means that the best parts of Detective #1027 are things like Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez showing us Batman conducting a lesson in superheroic detection, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarksy offering a haunting and humor-filled Joker story (complete with a Sex Criminals reference or two) that makes me want them to have a full-on Bat-book, Tom King teaming with the legend Walt Simonson for a powerful story with an unlikely villain, Scott Snyder and Ivan Reis taking on Jim Gordon’s point-of-view, James Tynion IV and Riley Rossmo doing a Batman/Deadman team-up, and the unstoppable Batman juggernaut that is Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham teaming up for something that…well, just read it. There aren’t any weak stories here, but the strongest parts of Detective Comics #1027 are the ones that remind us that Batman has meant many things to many storytellers over the course of more than eight decades, and the more we embrace the wild spectrum of Dark Knight tales, the more fun we’re likely to have.
Heavy #1: In the Vault Comics solicitation copy for the first issue, Heavy is described as “The Punisher for neurotics,” which is a good way to get my neurotic brain interested in your new book. Having read the first issue, though, I’d venture two more quick descriptions to perhaps get your interested in this comic: Heavy is both The Good Place but even more messed up, and Marvel’s “Angel Punisher” era if that whole concept had ever actually fired on all cylinders.
Written by Max Bemis with art by Eryk Donovan, Heavy follows a guy named Bill who’s spending his afterlife toiling away in a kind of purgatory that takes the form of a massive extradimensional city known as “The Big Wait.” Bill’s job in the Wait is being a “Heavy,” which basically means he’s an enforcer for the multiverse. If there’s a dimension somewhere in which Leonardo da Vinci has become a tyrannical sex creep (yes, really) for example, he’s your guy, and he’s had enough practice to get very good at what he does.
That’s just the hook, though. The deeper you get into Heavy, the more you find that the heart of the piece actually rests on something darker, more emotional, and worth investing in for the long haul. Embedding something heavier in the heart of Heavy — a book full of shoot-outs and dimensional portals and weird cityscapes — might be the secret ingredient that’s going to make us all keep reading, but the book’s greatest strength even beyond that is its ability to balance that heart with some truly buckwild stuff. Bemis, Donovan, and company know that you’ve showed up to read a wild genre adventure, and they’re going to give it to you. The result is a burst of all-out imagination and action that will make you simultaneously laugh and gasp at how bonkers it all is. I am strapped in and ready for the rest of this ride.
And that’s it for Comics Wire this week. Until next time, remember what John Custer told his son Jesse in the pages of Preacher:
“You gotta be one of the good guys, son: ‘Cause there’s way too many of the bad.”