[warning: mild spoilers ahead for CREATOR-OWNED HEROES #8 and major spoilers ahead for BLACK BEETLE #1]
Well, here it is. The final issue of CREATOR-OWNED HEROES. When you think “last issue”, particularly on a series meeting an untimely end, you might expect the rough edges left behind by a team just going through the motions until the job is done, but when you remember the team involved in COH, you might be holding out for a hell-for-leather comics A-game. This is definitely a team with a penchant for surprise endings.
Whether by intention or eerie coincidence, the three comics contained in COH #8 have a lot to say about endings, some astonishing, some happy, some brutal, but all unexpected. “Meatbag” Part 2, by Steve Niles and Scott Morse is drenched in the pulp noir mythos, from its inky, fluid artwork to its unabashed reverence for off-beat prose. Part 1 set a gumshoe scene with the mysterious, stomach-churning death of an informant, the “meatbag” of the title, but Part 2 completely turns any expectation of a standard murder-mystery on its head. It’s the sort of twist that makes you verbally exclaim “What??”, while you reread the narrative to take in the engrossing details. The page layouts and artwork contribute to this effect by creating full-page spreads with impressionistic central images to encourage pausing and reflection. The detective tale turns Lovecraftian in a big way with a remarkable skill for the grotesque in language and artwork. It’s an ending, quite literally, with bite. “Meatbag” is unconventional from start to finish in style and content, but accomplishes this through lavish genre homage.
Darwyn Cooke’s slated three-part story, begun in COH #7, does not resume in #8 because Cooke realized, realistically, that finishing the story in two segments alone would only compromise the work. But the mild let-down of this sober reality then breaks into a truly astonishing thing, the gift of a personal short comic that Cooke never intended to share with the public at large. It’s a winning gesture, and speaks to the devotion of indie creators to the creator-owned comics movement. What readers get is a moving, timeless, symbolic story in mythic language in “The Spirit of the Harbor”. It reads like a poem in comic form, and brings a soul lost at sea to a mysterious, soulful ending, a safe harbor. Cooke’s gift to COH #8 is also about endings, and the trials that lead to them, but suggests a profound sense of hope. You couldn’t wish for a more personal homage to COH than Cooke’s. It shows that the conclusion of the COH series inspired its creative team to give more, not less, than ever before.
The third comic in COH #8, action series “Killswitch” concludes with surprise after surprise, and often the juxtaposition of extremes to powerful effect. “You didn’t think it was going to be a happy ending, did you?”, Brandon’s bride asks, leveling a gun at him on their wedding night. How silly of the reader to expect anything less. As usual, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Jerry Lando, and Paul Mounts manage the tight-rope walk of blending significant dialogue with intense action, and packing in the exposition without drag on the plot. Characters, significantly, confirm that they are going to stay the same, despite massive life changes, “crazy”, driven, combative. It’s an affirmation of the comic itself and its basic premises while leaving the future lives of its characters open to interpretation, or perhaps further development.
A wide swath of COH #8 is given over to supporting its own operational credo by celebrating the life and work of indie creators through the work of Seth Kushner and Christopher Irving in their “Independent Spirits” profiles, an extension of the lavish photo essay book LEAPING TALL BUILDINGS that the duo launched in 2012. The round-up defies fan imagination by wrangling four indie legends into photos and prose via three complete profiles, each including original interview material: Robert Kirkman of THE WALKING DEAD, Los Bros. Hernandez of LOVE AND ROCKETS, and Bryan Lee O’Malley of SCOTT PILGRIM fame. Crisp, evocative photographs by Seth Kushner cast these indie heroes in a new light. Kirkman, grimacing through broken glass suggests the violence and urban decay of his comics but also his ongoing, battling attitude to change the face of comics. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez look unusually calm and reflective, hinting at the strength of their position in their own artistic trajectories and their steady vision for the future of their work. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s expression is priceless in his portrait: he still looks surprised by his own massive success, but like the cat that’s swallowed the canary, he’s musing on the personal goals he can certainly accomplish founded on this success.
The interviews provided in the “Independent Spirits” profiles are equally punchy and memorable. Kirkman is gathering steam to continue “shining a light on the availability of creator-owned comics and steering readers to that as best I can”, and provides candid commentary on his time working in mainstream comics. Los Bros. Hernandez look back toward their early motivation in creating LOVE AND ROCKETS, rejecting the “tired” aspects of superhero comics in favor of “building a new world”, and also gaze confidently into the future with, as Gilbert Hernandez says, “ideas” enough to last the next “twenty years”. O’Malley provides generational insights into the visual impact of video games on comics as well as staking his claim as an enduringly indie creator. Having found his voice in the indie sphere, he simply doesn’t “want to do anything else” and is prepared to run with the freedom radical success has garnered for him. There’s an attitude of almost palpable excitement from all of these creators, a sense that their most decisive work lies ahead through the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
COH #8 does a virtuoso job of rounding off the magazine’s run and giving fans a sense of closure but for many it will still feel like a conversation interrupted, a solidly constructed view of what could have been. That’s an enduring legacy for creator-owned projects and it’s highly motivating for future creators who may want to continue this kind of challenging conversation. But stepping back, readers have to acknowledge the remarkable vista of what CREATOR-OWNED HEROES has accomplished in only 8 issues. COH has been a testament to the value of creative team work in creator-owned projects, a lesson in the vagaries of the market, particularly those of distribution, but a reminder that creator-owned comics with their requisite economic highs and lows, are, as a whole, here to stay. As Palmiotti says in his farewell, collections of material that were originally intended to be included in the COH series are “coming soon” and a digital afterlife preserves COH for new readers. Palmiotti’s full-page spread of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt strikes a theme for the series as a whole, reflecting on the virtue of “worthy causes” and avoiding the more traveled road of “cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat”. CREATOR-OWNED HEROES ventured into no-mans-land, and staked out new territory in ways comics creators are still continuing to realize, and may continue to discover far into the future. Those, indeed, are no “timid souls”.
While we usher out one ground-breaking series in CREATOR-OWNED HEROES #8 this week, we also witness the formal arrival of another making its mark on genre comics: BLACK BEETLE #1. The preamble, BLACK BEETLE #0, a collection gathered from shorter serials in DARK HORSE PRESENTS, kicked up quite a storm of anticipation for “No Way Out”. What Francesco Francavilla delivers in “No Way Out” is not, in fact, simply more of the same, despite the epic qualities of the stand-alone BB # 0. Instead, BLACK BEETLE #1 is a story less constrained, less governed by the need to initiate the reader into the world of The Black Beetle character. It feels, in short, like The Black Beetle has been truly unleashed upon his own world, and the dynamic energy behind that launch is exhilarating. There are a number of narrative, and visual “firsts” in BB #1, even for the reader of BB # 0, while the features that remain the same are some of the most winning aspects of BB # 0. Like BB #0, BB #1 employs voice-over narrative from The Black Beetle, but like a good Marlowe story from detective noir tradition, it gives the reader the sense of being drawn into a personal conversation with the narrator. “Wish me luck”, Black Beetle says, combining both the self-deprecation (and later bravado) of a hard-boiled detective.
As in Francavilla’s issue #0, BB #1 makes full use of the double-page spread in a visually dazzling manner. Francavilla takes a wealth of exposition and turns it into movement in time and space by overlaying a collage of relevant newspaper clippings, photos, and maps to fill the reader in on necessary background information about Black Beetle’s current mission. In fact, the layout is a little reminiscent of a board-game like Snakes and Ladders, and suggests the difficulty of conflating all this information into a single course of action.
Two more features readers of BB #0 might recognize are the use of the occasional nearly silent page which has a cinematic feel. Noir films often have nearly silent sequences during moments of tension that erupt into explosive action. Lastly, as in BB #0, Francavilla uses significant space to depict the single most important violent action in the book. In this case, a tremendous explosion is given a double-page spread. It leaves a lasting impression of impact on the reader, similar to the impact it has on the startled Black Beetle, who didn’t see it coming. The visual space is also justified by theme: this explosion represents the complete destruction of Black Beetle’s expectations and carefully laid plans.
The developments on style continuous between BB #0 and BB #1 are satisfying, like finding out what new features a mysterious gadget is capable of, but the “firsts” in BLACK BEETLE #1 are even more impressive. The introduction of “beetle-vision” early on in the issue is bound to be a fan favorite. In a page undivided by traditional comics panels, readers view a building façade in three goggle-like, and of course red-filtered, sets of images, a sequential visual pan down the frontage. In a comic dealing with a red-goggled hero, perhaps it should have occurred to readers that Francavilla might wheel this effect out at some point, but instead it’s both unexpected and riveting.
Another first that speaks to developing characterization for Black Beetle is his use of tranquilizing dart guns on his intended foes. Nearly silent, elegantly employed from his aerial perch, they fit well with his methodical persona. Readers get more of sense of this persona when they view Black Beetle at work in his conspiracy-theorist-turned crime-fighter bunker complete with webs of string and tape. He has files and images; he’s a planner, someone with an intricate mind. What Black Beetle knows and does not know is one of the most compelling mystery elements in the books so far.
Two more firsts round off the intrigue that BLACK BEETLE #1 establishes, both visually and thematically, for the reader. Black Beetle, known increasingly for his aerial exploits, and his ability to grapple, climb, and even fly via heli-pack, falls in BB #1. And when he falls, it’s from an 18-storey building. In sharp vertical panels that span the page but decrease in size, the reader is encouraged to feel the vertigo of something slipping away by watching Black Beetle’s receding form. It’s an innovative and highly effective layout for a comic already dealing heavily in the use of space and vertical distances. Finally, a thematic first takes the form of an adversary for Black Beetle who is not a puppeteer of vast forces (as seen in BB #0) but someone working in a similar vein as Black Beetle, only with contrary ideology. We learn in BB #1 that Black Beetle is interested in bringing his perps to “justice” whereas this new, intriguing character “Labyrinto”, is content to exact some form of punishment by “mass murder”. This not only ads to Black Beetle mythology, but builds momentum. If there are beings like Labyrinto in the world, there may be many, and many conflict-driven adventures for Black Beetle to come.
As editor Jim Gibbons says in his “Colt City Radio” announcement page, Black Beetle is, in fact, a “superheroic sleuth”. BLACK BEETLE #1 establishes that role more firmly in a number of ways while remaining a “gritty romp”. The remarkable thing about Francavilla’s storytelling is that the more he gives away about Black Beetle’s personal character, the more he suggests the unknown. Part of this is due to his concise but spectacle-oriented artwork that makes Black Beetle seem like an imposing but vulnerable force in an increasingly expansive and hostile environment. Heroes don’t usually have time to be particularly chatty when they are falling 18 storeys.
BLACK BEETLE #1 is very much the kind of comic that makes you want to buy it digitally and in print. The kind that not only makes you go to the comic shop, perhaps for the first time in a long while, but also stand at the rack and read it long enough for old timey comic shop owners to threaten, “You read it, you buy it”. It’s rare to find a comic that combines visual experimentation, appealing homage, and well-paced character development so seamlessly, but thankfully for readers, there’s more to come.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.