Tag Archives: comics

Vaughan and Harris Ex Machina

Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris (creators), Tom Feister (inks), JD Mettler (colors) and Jared K Fletcher (letters), Ex Machina, Book One (Vertigo 2013) – originally published in 11 single magazines in 2004 and 2005

Having decided – several times – not to read any more superhero comics, here I am again. But this one is written by Brian K Vaughan, who was to go on to write the wonderful comic series Y: The Last Man, Paper Girls, and Saga (currently on hiatus).

What if the world’s first real superhero had been jetting around New York City on 11 September 2001, and had managed to intercept the second plane, saving thousands of lives? What if he realised that superhero vigilantism was of limited effectiveness and decided that he could probably do more good by running for Mayor of New York City? And what if he won the election as an independent candidate?

Ex Machina begins when civil engineer Mitchell Hundred, having decided to end his brief career as superhero The Great Machine, has indeed been elected New York’s mayor, bound by promises not to discuss publicly the origins of his superpowers (biggest of which is the ability to communicate with machines) an not to use those powers to do things best left to the police.

It goes without saying that things don’t go smoothly. Hundred inherits the New York mayoral burden of being blamed for everything. (Seth Meyers made hay with this tradition in his first Closer Look after Eric Adams became Mayor earlier this month.) He also has to deal with the burning issues of the early 2010s: terrorism, of course, but also same sex marriage, racism and the ongoing culture wars. And it wouldn’t be a superhero comic, even a retired one, without an overall arc involving mysterious possibly-alien graffiti and hideous serial killings … to be continued.

I don’t know that I’d recommend the book to serious lovers of fine literature, but I enjoyed it, and look forward to the subsequent five volumes. If nothing else, I enjoy Brian K Vaughan’s regular info-gems. For just one example, when his chief of staff points out that by officiating at a same-sex marriage he has alienated a huge segment of the population, he answers: ‘When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he turned to one of his aides and said, “I believe we’ve just lost the south forever.”‘ This isn’t the Marvel universe.

Lemire Endings: Gideon Falls 6 and Ascender4

Among my welcome gifts of comics this Christmas are the final instalments of two series that have been going for a couple of years. Though they share a principal author, they evoked vastly different responses in me: I was just relieved that one of them was over at last, and the final pages of the other had me welling up.


Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End (Image Comics 2021, originally published as issue 27 of the comic)

This has been a brilliant piece of complex story telling, matched by superbly challenging art work. There’s a kind of zombie apocalypse with hideous grins, happening in at least three time periods but all in the same place. There’s endless confusion about which people and institutions are on the side of good, and which in thrall to evil. There’s a weird blend of scientism and the occult, and an abundance of surgical masks that belies the story’s pre-Covid-19 beginnings (and don’t make any obvious sense without the Covid–19 reference).

Horror is a genre whose appeal is lost on me. That, and the sense on page after page that I had to work hard just to figure out what was going on, means I was pretty cool about the series, and this final instalment didn’t warm me up. The occasional page is upside down, for a start, and to my eye at least the characters never take on clear individual qualities. Interestingly, among the included extras is the script of the original comic: reading it would be an ideal way of sorting out who everyone was, and what was happening on the pages where the images were indecipherable to me. I was tempted, but in the end I decided I’d rather live with being too stupid to follow the story than expend any more effort on it.


Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design), Will Dennis (editor), and Tyler Jennes (assistant editor), Ascender Volume Four: Star Seed (Image Comics 2021, from issues 15–18 of the comic)

This volume brings an end to six years of space opera – the six-part Descender. and the the four-part Ascender. This also has been a brilliantly complex story-telling, whose visual complexity sometimes tipped over into incomprehensibility. Here too several distinct stories have occupied the same space in a vertigo-inducing manner.

But at the heart of this saga are two small children under threat, one of whom is a robot, so the reader has an emotional grounding. We know who to barrrack for when they flex their great powers (the robot), and who to fear for when the forces of empire and magic and machinery are out to destroy them (the flesh and blood girl).

Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour paintings, which I didn’t care for at all at first, turn out to serve the story beautifully. The scenes of violence are just as chaotic as anyone could wish. The bad guys, rather than being softened by the pastel colours, take on a kind of deliquescent vileness. And the children stay softly vulnerable throughout.

Among tying off of narrative threads, there’s a twist in the final moments that got to me. It takes real genius to set up a narrative tension that the reader is barely aware of, to let it simmer for years (years in the telling, and decades in the story itself), to lay careful last-minute groundwork for a resolution that the reader (this one anyway) sees as pure decoration, and then spring the resolution in just a single frame. I hope that’s abstract enough to leave the story unspoiled should you choose to read it.

Given my own widely divergent responses to these two series, I hesitate to recommend either of them without qualification. But if I was running a comic shop and you walked in off the street asking for recommendations, Jeff Lemire’s name would spring to my lips.

Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, 1OO Bullets, Book 1 (DC Vertigo 2014)

A man calling himself Agent Graves approaches someone and gives them an attaché case containing absolute proof that a particular person has done them a great wrong. The case also contains a gun and a hundred bullets, which Agent Graves asserts can be used with complete impunity to kill the one who has done the wrong.

Will the person receiving the case take revenge, or will something other than fear of the legal consequences stop them?

That’s the set-up for the first issues in this series of 100 comics that were published from 1999 to 2009.

This book is a compilation of the first 20 issues, and it turns out, as you would expect, that this fairly crude moral dilemma broadens out in unexpected directions. Is Agent Graves a supernatural figure and does this turn out to be in the horror genre? Well, no, at least I don’t think so at this stage. This is one of those stories where a hidden cabal wields huge power in the world, and Agent Graves is somehow either their enemy or their enforcer. A group called the Minutemen is involved and perhaps the attaché case is a recruitment device …

It’s stylishly done, with too much traditionally ‘sexy’ female flesh on display. For my taste, it’s more interesting than superhero comics, and I may read on …

Bitter Root One and Two

Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Rico Renzi & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sanford Green (cover artist), Heather Antos (editor), plus backmatter by John Jennings, Kinitra Brooks, Regina N Bradley, Qiana Whitted, Stacey Robinson, Ceeon D Quiett Smith and fan artists, Bitter Root Volume One: Family Business (Issues #1–5, Image Comics 2020)

Chuck Brown, David F Walker & Sanford Greene (creators), Sofie Dodgson & Sanford Greene (color artists), Clayton Cowles (letterer), John Jennings (backmatter), Shelly Bond (editor), Joe Hughes (editor), plus Daniela Miwa, Lisa K Weber, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Daniel Lish, Chris Brunner, Rico Renzo, Khary Randolph, Matt Herms, Dietrich Smith and Anthony George as artists and color artists for individual stories, Bitter Root Volume Two: Rage & Redemption (Issues 6–10, plus Red Summer Special, Image Comics 2020)

You probably have to be a horror fan to enjoy this Eisner Award winning comic series. I’m not one. I find the award-winning art by Sanford Greene repulsive, as I’m meant to, but I’m also meant to enjoy it, which I don’t. I’m not the target audience.

But there’s a lot to appreciate. The storytelling is richly complex.The opening spread shows a nightclub in Harlem, 1924, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, where a crowd of African Americans are dancing exuberantly to jazz. A young couple head home across a park. In the final frame of the spread they are terrified by a pair of nasty claws looming over them. And we’re away.

If you plan to read these comics and prefer to let them unfold the story for you in their own intriguing way, stop reading now.

In this world, when people are infected by greed and hate, especially race-based hate, they become monsters called Jinoos. The central characters, the Sangeryes fight them, try to subdue them and where possible use compounds prepared by Ma Etta to cure them. There are other monsters, perhaps even more dangerous, created by pain and misery, and demons that come outside this world. We have no doubt of the goodness of the Sangeryes, but they too are vulnerable to infection, and one of them, a huge man with a penchant for big words, is flicking back and forth between being a monster and a decent human by the end of this book.

So there’s complex play of good and evil, characters you can feel for, plenty of violent action and horror gore, and underlying it all a non-too-subtle perspective on racism. Then there’s the ‘backmatter’. John Jennings, a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside, kicks it off with a learned article on Afrofuturism and the EthnoGothic, placing this comic in a context that includes Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. There are articles on African American history, folk traditions and popular culture, and on key figures from the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke and Zora Neal Hurston. Some might find this serious discussion to be awkwardly inappropriate for a comic – you know, ‘Can’t we just enjoy a bit of gore without being told how worthy it is?’ Tastes will differ. For me the backmatter made the gore almost enjoyable. John Jennings’s first piece ends:

The Bitter Root team should be very proud. Not just because they’ve created this ‘cool’ cultural artefact but because they’ve created a new thread in the ever growing and evolving tapestry of the American story, as told through the veiled and weary eyes of the black American citizen.

I find it reassuring that among the fan art that proliferates on the back pages is a powerful image of the matriarch Ma Etta by the scholarly John Jennings. He’s not writing from arm’s length.


I persevered with Book Two mainly because I’d been given these books as a birthday present and felt a kind of obligation to the giver.

I’m still not enamoured of the story, and I still find the artwork and colouring almost unreadably horrible. (The awards that these things have won indicate that my distaste says more about me than it does about the books.)The back cover informs us that there’s a movie in development with Ryan Coogler and Zinzi Evans, who have Black Panther in their show reel. Maybe the movie can transcend the horror genre just as Black Panther pretty much transcended the superhero genre. Maybe I’ll even go to see it.

Again, this volume has copious backmatter, thanks to which I know that the fantastical world of this comic has its basis in historical events: the Red Summer of 1921 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. These events included not just lynching, arson and general violence against African Americans, but the destruction of 35 city blocks in Tulsa when incendiary devices were dropped from planes. The unleashing of hideous demonic forces makes a lot of sense as a metaphor for those events, and the struggles of the Sangerye family to deal with the consequences. (In this volume, Chinatown in New York City has a similar demonic invasion.)

I can imagine a horror devotee picking up these books and being launched on a journey of discovery by the historical and literary information packed into the back pages. They might explore rootwork and conjure; Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Hamilton and W E B DuBois; the Harlem Renaissance and the Tulsa Race Massacre. That can’t be a bad thing.

Jeff Lemire’s Ascender Vol Three

Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design), Will Dennis (editor), and Tyler Jennes (assistant editor on issues 13 and 14), Ascender Volume Three: The Digital Mage (Image Comics 2020, from issues 11–14 of the comic)

A quick Duck Duck Go reveals that Volume 3 was published in December, so it may well arrive in Sydney in time to be a March birthday gift.

That was my January wish. In March it was granted.

I don’t have a lot to say about Volume Three of this space saga that wouldn’t be simply repeating what I said about the first two volumes (here, if you’re interested).

Suffice it to say the forces of evil become more formidable, and close in our fugitive bands; more of the original group of bickering good guys are reunited; new good guys turn up and spill a lot of vampire blood; the quest that has animated these three volumes is completed; and at the heart of it all is a vulnerable little girl. What’s not to like?

Among many good things, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have a great gift for final moments. At the end of this volume, the little girl and her companions arrive in a new place, and one they have recognised the people they find there, this dialogue happens in the last three panels:

You're just in time?

Time? Time for what?

Time to save the universe

It will probably be at least six months until Volume 4 appears. Maybe I can wait until Christmas.

Jeff Lemire’s Ascender Vols One and Two

Jeff Lemire Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design) and Will Dennis (editor), Ascender Volume One: The Haunted Galaxy (Image Comics 2019, from issues 1–5 of the comic)
———-, Ascender Volume Two: The Dead Sea (Image Comics 2020, from issues 6–10 of the comic)

At the end of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender series (my blog posts here, here and here), as the world was being destroyed, there was a faint glimmer of hope, and a promise of a sequel to be called Ascender. This is it.

The action begins ten years after Descender ended. The landscape on planet after planet is unrecognisable, and not just because it’s in ruins from the great galactic war of the earlier series. Where that earlier conflict was mostly between humans and machines, there are now no machines to be seen. The world is ruled by a hideous witch known only as Mother, whose agents utter phrases reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984: ‘Mother loves you’, ‘Mother is always watching,’ and the like.

Aligned against her, at the beginning, there is just a little girl named Mila and her father. We soon discover that the father is Andy, who was the human boy companion of Tim-21 the robot-boy hero of Descender. In a series of flashbacks we learn of Mila’s birth and the death by vampire bite of her mother – Effie, who had chosen to become part machine in the earlier series but was aligned with the forces of good. As the story unfolds, we learn that Mother draws her power from the coven of her deceased female ancestors – including her own older sister, whom she murdered. Tim-21’s robot dog Bandit, one of the dozens of charming characters from the earlier series, turns up with his backwards bark (‘Fra! Fra!’), and helps Mila and Andy get out of some very tight corners. And then there’s Telsa, former soldier with the now non-existent NGU (maybe not the good guys, but certainly better than Mother’s lot), currently the captain of a small vessel. The book ends with Andy wounded and bobbing about in the ocean, and Telsa and her Amazonian first mate Helda reluctantly in charge of Mila and Bandit, pursued by Mother’s forces:

‘Now what are we gonna do, Captain?’
‘The only thing we can, Helda …
We find a ship. We get this girl off-planet.
And we never come back.

Volume 2: The Dead Sea continues the process of getting the old gang back together, filling the reader in on the horrors of the past ten years, and giving Mother’s back story. A cracking pace is set, much blood is shed, much of it the blood of ‘vamps’, there are ghosts and sundry monsters, including werewhales, and Mila has definitely become the main protagonist, a small child who draws people to her as protectors and as would-be predators. Mother’s story takes a dramatic lurch forward, there are intense operatic moments involving love and death, and my sense is that we’re poised for some big action in the next volume. (A quick Duck Duck Go reveals that Volume 3 was published in December, so it may well arrive in Sydney in time to be a March birthday gift.)

I’m enjoying this series hugely. Tim-21, the powerful but vulnerable boy robot from Descender may never appear, but his absence accounts for a lot of the emotional heft of the story, and Mila seems to be provoking some of the same emotion.

The credits don’t attribute the story to Jeff Lemire and the art to Dustin Nguyen, that is they are not writer and illustrator but storytelling collaborators: there are many moments where the text doesn’t quite say what’s happening and the images step in – often enough in ways that require the reader to slow down and do some parsing. There have probably been theses written on the notion of comics-literacy. This partnership would be a good place for such a thesis to linger. Nguyen’s watercolours are magical – the muted colours and soft outlines mean that even the most violent and blood-thirsty scenes have a kind of enchantment to them.

Lemire & Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls 5

Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 5: Wicked Worlds (Image Comics 2020, from issues 22–26 of the comic)

My younger son and I traditionally give each other comics on Christmas, birthdays, and Father’s Day. Luckily, this most recent aggregation of Gideon Falls monthlies turned up in Kinokuniya a couple of days after I had done my shopping there, so we avioded the embarrassment of giving each other the same book.

I’m not a fan of this series, horror not being my cup of (something a lot less savoury than) tea. But having come this far, there’s no turning back.

This is the second-last volume, and we’ve pretty much reached the depths. At the end of Volume 5 the mysterious Dark Barn was destroyed and our band of heroes thought that would be the end of the evil they were combating, but it turns out that they just set the evil free, and nothing much happens in this volume except to see just how demonic the world has become. It’s a kind of zombie apocalypse with hideous grins.

The saving grace of this book, and of the whole series, is the brilliant artwork. Hardly a single page goes by with a simple linear narrative. As the story flips back and forth between three separate narrative threads (I think there are only three), each in its own time period though all in the same place, the artwork does all it can to heighten the disorientation, but repays close attention. In a spread where the Western story is unfolding, the are tiny insets from the futuristic one. Spectacularly, a spread near the end shows a series of cubes, and on each of the three visible sides of each cube a different story progresses towards the hideously threatening full-page image of the last page, an image that ensures that at the end of this year, like it or not, we’ll be lining up for Volume 5.

Puerto Rico Strong comics

Marco Lopez, Desiree Rodriguez, Hazel Newlevant, Derek Ruiz and Neil Schwartz (editors), Puerto Rico Strong (2018)

This is a comics anthology supporting Puerto Rico disaster relief and recovery in the wake of Hurricane María in September 2017.

I confess that before reading this book my main source of information about Puerto Rico and its relationship to the USA was West Side Story. The book has given me a lightning introduction to 500 years of the island’s history, from the original Taino inhabitants, through brutal Spanish colonisation to the current US imperial presence. Puerto Ricans were made US citizens – who don’t have the vote – in 1917, and a couple of weeks later the men were called up to fight for the US in World War One. As many as 1500 Puerto Rican women were involved in trials of the contraceptive pill in the 1950s, without real informed consent. And so on.

Among the 40 short pieces, as well as the history lessons, there are childhood stories, fantasies of dystopian futures and mythic pasts, explorations of the complex identities involved in being Puerto Rican, tales of friendship and creative enterprise, all in a dazzling range of art styles. Most of the writers and artists are Puertoriqueños. Donald Trump’s insulting paper-towel-throwing stunt and subsequent blocking of aid after the hurricane is mentioned, but his presence is restricted to less than a handful of pages. Attention goes instead an exhilarating assertion of pride in Boricuan identity and the proud history of resistance. (Borikén was the name of the island before the Spanish colonisers renamed it.)

I’m in awe of the work of the editors bringing this vast array of writers and artists together in a work that has many overlaps but never feels muddlingly repetitive. My copy was a gift for my birthday in March. I waited too long to read it.

Lemire & Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls 4

Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 4: The Pentoculus (Image Comics 2020, from issues 17–21 of the comic)

Having been given the first three books in this series for my birthday in March (blog post here), I’ve reciprocated by buying this as a late Father’s Day gift for my comic supplying son, who is also a father. Of course I had to read it first, even though it’s horror and not my cup of tea.

Because I am so much in alien territory, here’s a quote from a Goodreads review by an English Professor at the University of Illinois, who I assume is a knowledgeable fan of this kind of thing (link to the whole excellent and spoilerish review here):

It’s clear from my glance at the reviews that 1) everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading and 2) loves the art, but 3) doesn’t know what the Hell (pun intended) is going on. I find little hints in the text itself that seem to indicate writer Jeff Lemire acknowledges he feels our pain.

The artwork is extraordinary, I agree. I agree there’s a pun if you say ‘what the Hell’. I’m not sure everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading.

The story telling is assured, so assured that even as the action shifts in time and place from page to page, you can generally follow with a little increase in focus. But look, the blurb says that in this volume the mechanics of the Pentoculus are explained. Well, yes, but the explanation certainly left me not knowing what was going on. The Bishop from earlier volumes, who I was sure was evil, is probably a good guy. Other key characters have their identities change before our eyes – and theirs. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m supposed to find it weird that the young hero, if that’s what he is, wears a Covid-type mask. And the piles of bloody corpses continue to mount …

Lemire & Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls

Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls (Image Comics)
Volume 1: The Black Barn (2018, from issues 1–6 of the comic)
Volume 2: Original Sins (2019, from issues 7–11 of the comic)
Volume 3: Stations of the Cross (2019, from issues 12–16 of the comic)

These three books were a birthday present from my main comics supplier. I’m reading them promptly in order to lend them to him in this time of pestilence. It turns out this is a horror series, not something that appeals to me.

The first volume opens on an image of a young man in a surgical mask and rubber gloves looking at some roughly sketched garbage. Only a couple of months into the Covid–19 story, it takes an effort to realise that these accoutrements signify anything else besides sensible precautions against infection. But they do, though (not really a spoiler) we still don’t know what they do signify, beyond that the young man is a bit scary, by the end of the third volume.

Two story lines emerge in a fragmented and disorienting manner. A young man in psychotherapy for his obsession with garbage has troubling visions of a black barn that somehow embodies evil. A Catholic priest is sent by a bishop (whose face we don’t see) to a country town – Gideon Falls – to replace the parish priest who died recently, and behold he sees a black barn in gruesome circumstances on his first night there.

The stories progress in tandem, switching from one to the other without warning. There’s a section early on where the text bubbles and images belong to different stories. The effect is to unsettle the reader, slow him or her down, but also to suggest that the two plot lines are intimately interwoven, even though we don’t know how. In fact, even to the end of this first book, the two stories haven’t linked up. The young man’s therapist, who is a Buddhist and doesn’t believe in evil, comes to share his vision of the barn. The priest meets up with some locals who fill him in on the lore of the evil barn, and he finds himself inside the barn where his past wrongdoings come back to torment him. There is more death and bloodshed, though thankfully the artwork focuses more on the psychological fragmentation than the gore.

In the second volume the priest and the sheriff can’t remember their experiences in the barn, or even seeing the barn, but the aftertaste lingers on. Meanwhile, we learn more of the backstory of the young man, whose name is Norton – or is it? About the middle of this book the priest and Norton meet, inside the barn, which they have both separately reconstructed – either I didn’t read carefully enough or the impossible detail of how either of them did this was skipped. The intertwining images of them both at work are wonderful. The monster who inhabits the barn is revealed, up to a point, and we understand that the story is taking place in oddly dislocated time frames.

The third volume takes us into wild territory. There are crucifixions, visitors from the future, apparitions from the past, a gang of people wearing surgical masks, scary cockroaches, a satanic figure who is the heart of the book’s evil, something called the Pentoculus which suggests that there’s a sciency dimension to the horror … and a general sense that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Because these books give no information about their creators apart from giving their names on the cover, I went to Wikipedia for the details at the top of this post. There I learned that a fourth volume, The Pentoculus, is due for publication in April, and a fifth, Wicked Worlds, in May. I may seek them out if my Supplier is interested, but otherwise, meh.

As a no-longer-practising Catholic I’m unimpressed by the use of Catholicism for horror purposes, but I guess it’s an established trope, dating back at least to The Exorcist. When I was young I believed in the devil as an evil force active in the world, and I remember moments of terror, mainly at night, related to that belief. But it was always completely outweighed by belief in the goodness of God. There were devils, sure, but there were also angels who were just as real. I guess in the 21st century it’s tempting for people who have lost any sense of a loving God to think there must be some diabolical force loose in the world. I prefer to look for more mundane explanations, even if sometimes – like when I see the President of the United States boasting abut the ratings he gets for his Covid-19 press conferences – there’s no explanation that will make the reality unscary.