In Panel Panopticon, Nick Hanover and friends talk about the comics they’ve picked up for the week, good, bad or otherwise. This week, the best series on the market is an Archie zombie story, while a man with tentacle arms kicks some ass in a new Dark Horse series and Marvel puts out some major disappointments.
Afterlife with Archie #5
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artist: Francesco Francavilla
Letterer: Jack Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
It may seem preposterous, but one of the best series on the market right now is Afterlife with Archie, a comic that by all rights should have been a gimmicky disaster. Like a Frankenstein’s monster composed of bits of The Walking Dead, Warren horror mags like Creepy and Eerie and the Archie universe, Afterlife with Archie defies the laws of nature and roars to life, but it’s a lot easier to love. All the credit for that success is due to the book’s phenomenal creative team, with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa putting his encyclopedic knowledge of Archie lore to terrifying use while Francesco Francavilla proves in every panel that he is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror artists in decades. Every detail of the title is crafted with love and care, from Francavilla’s moody backgrounds to Jack Morelli’s expert hybridization of standard Archie lettering with the hasty scrawl of the EC library to the way Aguirre-Sacasa twists the time tested cliches of the Archie world until they’re still somehow both faithful to the source and horrifying.
The series wraps up its first arc with issue five, which is told from the perspective of Hubert H. Smithers, butler to Veronica Lodge and her father. It’s a great place to start if you’re behind, not just because it does an excellent job of taking stock of the horrible situation Archie and his friends now find themselves in, but because it also gives an outsiders perspective on the politics and relationships in Riverdale. Aguirre-Sacasa isn’t just aware that many readers of the series will be new or lapsed Archie readers, he actively counts on it and in a surprising but efficient way, he uses this alternate reality horror story to show readers what they’ve been missing in Riverdale, from the diversity of the cast (there are several queer characters, for instance, and the series features more races than the entirety of Girls’ first season) to the progressiveness of the politics.
As other critics have pointed out, Riverdale is an incredibly ripe environment for a horror story like this, and unlike similar bizarro world stories, Afterlife with Archie isn’t forced to make major changes or alterations in order to make the horror element click. Pop culture has reached a critical mass when it comes to zombie stories, but that structural integrity allows Afterlife with Archie to stand out as far more than a gimmick; this is a horror comic that understands mood, pacing and tone are all more important than gimmicks or gore. By the end of this first arc, Afterlife with Archie appears to be heading towards a Walking Dead-like long game, which is an intriguing concept, particularly since unlike The Walking Dead, Afterlife with Archie is full of well-developed characters and a completely unique horror setting. Kirkman’s epic has long since become barely more than a mopey cringefest, but there’s a surprising amount of life to the bleak world Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have crafted here. So laugh all you want about the gimmick and how silly the concept is, Afterlife with Archie is a great horror series that only gets better with each release.
Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1
Writer: Mike Benson
Artist: Tan Eng Huat
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Jesus Aburtov
Letterer: Joe Sabino
If you saw Dave Johnson’s fun, pulpy cover for Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1 and thought you’d be in for an exciting, cheeky adventure, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, Mike Benson and Tan Eng Huat’s new take on Marvel’s classic martial arts franchise is anything but fun or pulpy. Instead, Benson and Huat taken Kung Fu down the kind of monotonous, grim road more frequently seen in DC’s New 52 releases than Marvel’s mostly excellent NOW! debuts.
Shang-Chi, the possessor of those “Deadly Hands of Kung Fu,” has managed to be an important part of the Marvel U for some time, currently serving as an Avenger and before that he had memorable stints with MI:6 and Heroes for Hire. That Heroes for Hire series in particular served as a great example of how Shang-Chi has remained relevant, as the title had him and his unflinching honor in direct contrast with his more mercenary peers, but under Benson’s direction, Chi is closer to a Jason Bourne-like super agent, nearly robotic in his lack of emotion and dedication to his mission as he spouts precise explanations of what his body is doing and why he’s such a badass. Much of the first issue’s plot revolves around Chi’s attempts to hold back his desire for vengeance even as friends and enemies alike try to bring that rage out of him, but it’s played as an emotional MacGuffin rather than true character development– it’s just another way of pointing out how easily Shang-Chi could kill people, but how he doesn’t because, you know, honor.
The issue also struggles with aesthetic tone, as Huat’s art is decidedly more fun than Benson’s scripting, albeit not by much. Deadly Hands of Kung Fu has the artistic temperament of Marvel all-ages titles like Nova and Cyclops, which is weird considering it starts off with a direct view of someone being ripped in half by a guy named Razor Fist. Huat seems to have been influenced by Mark Bagley and while this first issue is more kinetic and expressive than most Bagley art, the work shares Bagley’s workmanlike anonymity. With a stronger script, Huat could have done more, but right now, the combination of that workmanlike art and a generic action script keep this from being the fun, pulpy title it should be.
Jack Kraken One-Shot
Writer: Tim Seeley
Artists: Ross Campbell, Tim Seeley, Jim Terry
Colors: Carlos Badilla
Published by Dark Horse
Tim Seeley is a comics creator with a long, healthy career so it isn’t surprising that he’s got a few unused ideas on standby waiting for their moment to shine. But Jack Kraken is an exceptionally interesting case, since the character has its roots in a concept Seeley came up with in kindergarten. Originally called “Gripper” thanks to his creepy ability to twist and morph his limbs at will, the character has been reborn as an “extranormal” agent for Human Interaction Management, a government agency that specializes in maintaining diplomacy between humans and paranormal species.
The brand new Jack Kraken one-shot collects a few standalone stories about the titular Kraken, meant as a sampler-style introduction to the character that had first premiered through the Double Feature comics app Seeley helped create at Four Star Studios. It makes sense that Kraken would move to Dark Horse, where the character fits right in with Hellboy and the BPRD gang, albeit in a far less apocalyptic world. The collection’s first story, which features art by Glory’s Ross Campbell, is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but even with that in mind, it’s a serviceable opening that gets Kraken’s powers, personality and intent across efficiently. Unlike Hellboy, Kraken seems to be content with his job and his role in the world, and while he occasionally butts heads with his superiors in small ways, he’s well-liked by his peers and is shown to be more than capable of taking care of business with little fuss.
Personally, I felt the first story didn’t quite emphasize Campbell’s specific artistic talents enough, restricting him to a lot of gray corridors and cramped spaces with little of the Heavy Metal-esque creative clutter that made him such a standout on Glory. The other two sections of the one-shot don’t suffer from the same problems, with Seeley’s own art on “The Ballad of Liadain Orlaith” offering up a sleek take on the kind of misunderstood monster he made his name on with Hack/Slash while Jim Terry steals the show with his alt-comix inflected work in “Who is Jack Kraken?” Consistency aside, there’s a lot to enjoy in Jack Kraken and the final story’s twist ending should leave quite a few readers eager for more adventures.
United States of Murder Inc #1
“Writer”: Brian Michael Bendis
“Artist”: Michael Avon Oeming
“Colorist”: Saki Toma
Published by Icon
Everything you need to know about this comic is expressed in these three panels.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover