John Byrne is at his best when he’s doing science fiction. Take Next Men as the ultimate example. That series followed the old-school rules of science fiction, by setting its premise and following through as realistically as possible. Byrne’s affection for classic Star Trek (i.e., the good stuff, not the recent reboot flicks from Jar Jar Abrams) and its attempts very early on to be the TV version of classic science fiction literature is obvious.
A lot of that drives The High Ways (IDW, $3.99 each) a four-issue sci-fi series that should be better than it is. The story begins with rookie Eddie Wallace joining the crew of the space freighter Carol Anne, along with first mate Marilyn Jones and Captain Jack Cagney. After Wallace is appropriately initiated into space life (always wear your suit!) the Carol Anne heads out to pick up some cargo on Europa. That’s where the mystery begins, with a strange creature spotted outside the science base there and no cargo for Cagney to pick up.
What follows is an odd story with a bunch of twists and turns that end up feeling very random instead of satisfyingly twisty. This is the kind of story that attempts to avoid the common sci-fi criticism of scientific inaccuracy by being as scientifically realistic as possible. And it achieves that aspect of it, but in doing so it fails to give its characters any real personality or tell a story with sufficient emotion or reason for the reader to fully engage in this world.
Byrne’s art remains consistent and I still think no one draws spaceship-style tech stuff as well as he does. The storytelling is very solid and Byrne’s style has evolved over the years into something looser and more expressive than his classic 1970s and 1980s work on X-Men, Fantastic Four and Superman. It’s quite a nice change if you can just let go of expecting his work to have that same clean and pristine quality and just enjoy it for what it is, and what it is is some damn fine drawing.
I would check out a sequel to The High Ways — I think there is something in the approach and style. A more engaging story could build this up into something really cool.
I have several large stacks of comics on my desk right now, including a bunch of current superhero releases from Marvel and DC. Some of these are not recent releases, but most are, and indicate where my head is in terms of comics these days.
Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 (Fantagraphics, 104 pages, black and white, $14.99) contains one of the best comics stories I’ve read in a very long time: Jamie Hernandez’s “Browntown.” It fills in the history of Maggie’s family with a story that is realistic, honest and true in every way that matters. Throw in a tale of “current day” Maggie, and some fantastic sex weirdness from Gilbert, and this easily is the best $15 you can spend in a comics shop.
Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection (Harper, 576 pages, black and white, $24.95) is really interesting to read for the first time so many years after having absorbed Scott McCloud’s most famous work, Understanding Comics. That’s because he obviously is experimenting with some of the ideas for comics storytelling he eventually put into Understanding Comics, and it’s interesting to see those ideas put into practice with a real story. What I didn’t expect from this book was how gentle and sweet it is, and how well McCloud’s art style fits with the story. It’s also a big, thick and satisfying read — complete with commentary by McCloud on each story. Another excellent read for a great price.
John Byrne’s Next Men #(3)1 and (3)2 (IDW, 28 pages each, color, $3.99 each) were a pleasant surprise. I have been a fan of Byrne’s work for many years and I thought his original run on Next Men was easily the best, most original thing he had ever done. I love a lot of the work he’s done for DC and Marvel superheroes, but Next Men really stood out to me as the kind of comic top creators should be free to do. Having just re-read the entire original Dark Horse run prior to digging into the new issues only reinforced this in my mind, and I really think that the series would have been a huge smash and run for years had Image Comics and the speculator phenomenon not come along at the same time. But I have to admit disappointment in Byrne’s recent work — especially such DC projects as the unreadable Lab Rats and underwhelming takes on Doom Patrol and The Demon. I haven’t read his previous IDW stuff. But the first two issues of the revived Next Men really popped — the story picked up seamlessly and with plenty of surprises, and the art recalls Byrne’s style from the time he did the original series and is more inviting and stylish than anything I’ve seen from him in years. I’m glad Byrne finally came back to this series and hope it’s successful enough to encourage him to try more creator-owned material in this vein.
The Official Marvel Index to The Uncanny X-Men (Marvel, color, $19.99). I have always liked these indexes because it’s a lot of fun to just flip through info on so many series in one convenient place. This is a complete revamp from the previous X-Men indices (published in 1987-89 and 1994), and while I like that things like variant covers and some behind-the-scenes creative notes are included, I do have a few complaints: Please, Marvel, number the pages — especially if you’re going to say in the text things like “This issue has a 2nd printing variant cover, which can be seen on p. 165.” Because I can’t find p. 165 with no page numbers short of flipping through the book until I spot what I’m looking for. Second, I know space is tight, but using abbreviations for every title is a bit annoying even as I like that you added a year to each issue cited in this way. And lastly, if you’re going to index the X-Men, it would be useful to treat the X-Men in the index the same way Marvel publishes the comics: As a line of comics. It’s especially annoying when you have so many crossovers between The Uncanny X-Men and X-Men, and the index only includes the Uncanny side. I would hope a second volume is on the way to fill in those gaps. Still, I’m glad to have this and pleased is goes all the way up through 2009’s Utopia crossover.
Back to singles: The New York Five #1 (DC/Vertigo, 32 pages, black and white, $2.99) surprised me by being a lot better than I remember The New York Four being. This sequel from writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly — about a group of young women finding their way through their freshman year at college in New York City — feels more appropriate to a college age than the younger first book. The full-size comic book format also lets Kelly’s artwork really shine — it looks fantastic in all its detailed, gritty, urban black and white glory.
I picked up 27 #1 (Image Comics, 24 pages, color, $3.99) as part of an effort on my part to find something — anything — new to get excited about. And it’s a good start. Scripted by Charles Soule with art by Renzo Podesta, this is a tale of a rock guitar god whose hand injury has put his career on the rocks. Until an unusual solution is offered that has its drawbacks. Printed in a slightly oversize “Golden Age” format, the art looks like it was actually drawn (instead of the heavily Photoshopped
Lastly, I snagged a copy of Who is Jake Ellis? #1 (Image Comics, 28 pages, color, $2.99), which presents an unusual take on the well-worn spy drama. Written by Nathan Edmondson, our titular hero is a spy who has a sort of imaginary friend who warns and advises him on how to do his job and get out of the sticky situations it lands him in. It’s not clear either to Ellis or the reader exactly what this presence is, but it is nice (again) to read a first issue that presents enough of a new story to make me feel like I got my $3 worth. The art, by Tonci Zonjic, is clear, atmospheric and well-colored, making for a nicely designed package.