In Panel Panopticon, Nick Hanover talks about the comics he’s picked up for the week, good, bad or otherwise.
Drawn and Written by: Bryan Hitch
Inks: Paul Neary
Colors: Laura Martin
Published by Image Comics
If you’ve been enjoying the self-aware but kinetic recent slate of Marvel Studios films, then you owe Bryan Hitch thanks. Hitch’s collaborations with fellow Brits Warren Ellis and Mark Millar on WildStorm series Stormwatch and The Authority helped redefine modern superheroics and Hitch’s singular style gave the sort of movement its name: widescreen comics. Generally considered a more “cinematic” take on superheroes, both in terms of narrative style and aesthetic, widescreen comics arguably reached their apex with Hitch and Millar’s The Ultimates, a 21st century update of The Avengers that was a large influence on Whedon’s film. But rather than revel in the fitting transition Hitch’s widescreen comics style has made to the screens that inspired it, Hitch’s new Image series Real Heroes seems to indicate the superstar artist is somewhat repentant.
Opening with what initially appears to be a blatant rip of The Ultimates, Real Heroes‘ first impression is one of cliché and hamfistedness…until Hitch pulls back the curtain and reveals that the “Olympians” fighting off alien invaders are characters in a blockbuster superhero film. Hitch is eager to explore the shift in the concept of the superhero from the classic view that heroes are archetypes who don’t kill (even when a “two-ton gorilla mutant is pulping kids in front of you”) to more superficially complex anti-heroes who kill as required and behave like spoiled rock stars. Real Heroes’ first issue is stuffed full of comments on creative and personal helplessness, with the actors portraying the heroes all offering differing levels of awareness of their parts in the facade, which come to a head in the issue’s twist conclusion. The first half of the issue indicates Hitch is somewhat troubled by how comics are developing into Hollywood buffets and the hopelessness many of the characters express seems to likewise indicate that he feels guilty for his part in this development of the industry.
Hitch exercising his creative demons is an interesting hook, but he still has some room to grow. Much of the first issue of Real Heroes feels flat, with Hitch’s usual blockbuster style somewhat subdued by Paul Neary’s inking, which combines with some rougher than normal Hitch art to make for odd juxtapositions between moments of incredible smoothness and scenes where the work comes across as rushed. Some scenes, like the final page, have the full on sheen that made The Ultimates look like a paper blockbuster, and Neary and colorist Laura Martin shine in those moments as well but those moments make the rougher sections all the more shallow. Hitch’s character development needs work, too, as the celebs functioning as the main characters are basically defined by singular traits– one has motor neuron disease, another is a rapper, one is a hothead coke addict, one is a holier-than-thou diva, and the last two are anonymous, innocent blonde superstars– but that could be more of a matter of the purposeful use of cliches to comment on this kind of storytelling. And the issue’s ending at least indicates that there will be a seismic shift in what kind of story this really is, anyway.
Created and illustrated by Anuj Shrestha
Published by Study Group Comics
Since its inception, Study Group Comics has been an online hub for some of the most exceptional and unique comics being created today. The imprint/collective houses everything from heady yet gritty explorations of selfishness like Pete Toms’ On Hiatus to more beautifully abstract work like Anuj Shrestha’s Genus. First appearing at Study Group last year, Genus has offered a tantalizing look at the evolution of Shrestha’s bold, minimalist style, a mixture of Tezuka-like simplicity and the imaginative surreality of Charles Burns.
The first volume of Genus is a near silent introduction to the Kafkaesque world of Genus, where people are seemingly ruled by human-plant hybrids. Samir, the bureaucratically doomed protagonist of Genus, just wants to get by and settle into to his new position at work, but the second volume of the series found Samir on the run from plant people authorities after being placed in the middle of a conspiracy that’s beyond his understanding. The second volume is also where Shrestha’s aesthetic really came into its own, as his linework grew more confident and he worked in more of the breathtaking character designs that stood out so much in the first volume and on the covers. Samir’s transformation into a plant person himself, which begins with mysterious bumps appearing on his neck and can somewhat be controlled through the consumption of a special hot sauce, has a bit of Cronenberg to it, and Shrestha plays that up, even giving the plant people heads sapphic and phallic aspects.
Much of the third volume is devoted to Samir’s infiltration of the plant people and their offices, which provides Shrestha an opportunity to juxtapose the bureaucratic elements of his odd future with the more fantastical features. It’s at this point in the story that Shrestha’s narrative moves out of the Kafkaesque beginning, featuring Samir as a helpless figure brought down by incomprehensible authority, to a Philip K. Dick-like scenario where Samir is struggling with his own identity within the constraints of a larger conspiracy. Shrestha ends the volume on a cliffhanger that basically forces the reader to go back and reexamine what has been revealed so far, allowing the story to be more adventurous and suspenseful than one would usually expect from this kind of abstract, cerebral comic.
Artist: Tradd Moore
Writer: Felipe Smith
Colors: Val Staples
It isn’t that surprising that post-Avengers Marvel has spent a significant amount of time and resources on developing new, reader friendly titles that reconfigure established characters from the company’s legendary back catalog but what is surprising is how great and eclectic the series have been for the most part. Much of that success is due to the company’s willingness to embrace indie creators with unique visions and perspectives, and the latest take on Ghost Rider is no exception.
Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore have done an excellent job filtering the Ghost Rider character through the Fast and Furious franchise while also injecting flavor from more classic wheelman flicks, like the Corman produced Grand Theft Auto. The result is a heavily stylized new take on Ghost Rider that isn’t afraid to embrace the ’70s look and tone that first made the character a hit while also bringing some West Coast perspective to the East Coast heavy Marvel U.
Starring Robbie Reyes, a mechanic who lives in the barrio with his handicapped younger brother, this new Ghost Rider is a heavy contrast from the moody white boys that have mostly taken on the mantle of the Spirit of Vengeance over the years. But the true star of the series is Moore’s art, which is breathless in its energy and detail. Moore fills every panel with speed, stylizing even Reyes himself as a fast figure, complete with a racing stripe in his hair and an elongated, lanky form that always seems like it’s moving in multiple directions. Val Staples’ coloring infuses Moore’s work with the sheen and chrome of muscle cars, providing a flashy but classic tone that makes each page pop and crackle.
Smith more than holds his own and it’s a testament to his writing that each character feels fully lived in rather than a cliché, a la infamous chicano Justice Leaguer Vibe. Reyes’ relationship with his younger brother in particular efficiently fleshes out Reyes’ motivations, with a splash page by Moore during the issue’s chase scene functioning as a kind of emotional climax before the shocking end of the issue. Like the best Marvel origin stories, this first issue of All-New Ghost Rider gets across its major themes of loss, redemption and justice effortlessly, eschewing the kind of heavy handed melodrama that too often bogs down Hollywood superhero debuts. If Smith, Moore and Staples can keep up this speed throughout the run, this might just be the Ghost Rider series that finally turns the character into an A-lister.
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