DC Comics is trying something new. In the wake of their Rebirth initiative, the publisher has rapidly expanded its content to include diverse new imprints such as
Young Animal, Wildstorm, Wonder Comics, Black Label, Ink, and Zoom. As their lineup expands, it can be hard to figure out what to pick up each week. That’s what our team is here to help with, every Wednesday, with the DC Round-Up!
THIS WEEK: We look at Cover #3’s continued use of meta storytelling. Also, American Carnage #1 is another strong debut for a new Vertigo title.
Note: the reviews below contain spoilers. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: David Mack
Essad Sinns Art: Bill Sienkiewicz
Digital Coloring: Zu Orzu
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual
It’s been interesting to watch Brian Michael Bendis revive his creator-owned Jinxworld imprint at DC, essentially relaunching it back in August. Bendis has returned old titles (Scarlet with Alex Maleev, The United States of Murder, Inc. with Michael Avon Oeming) and rolled out new concepts, including tattoo-heavy San Francisco-set yakuza romance Pearl, a collaboration with Michael Gaydos. The breakout title of the line, however, is fast-becoming the meta comic book creator spy thriller, Cover.
As with other Jinxworld books, Bendis is collaborating on Cover with an artist he’s known for decades and casually refers to in interviews as an uncle to his kids. This time it’s watercolor painter David Mack (who also did the Emmy-winning title sequence for the Jessica Jones TV show on Netflix). Cover is more than just a standard collaboration between a comic writer and artist. Bendis and Mack are also two of the starring characters within the book, albeit with their names changed and identities exaggerated. Still, the two are recognizable enough.
This meta angle is the heart of the comic, providing a unique glimpse into the lives of creators while giving the real life duo some unusual storytelling tools. Cover is a series with scenes set in studios and behind the tables at conventions, a series brimming with inside jokes about odd fans and banter about our niche business. It’s all very cute. What makes Cover more interesting, though, is its added layer of espionage. Cover combines the aforementioned meta creator concept with a story about moonlighting for the CIA. The analog for Mack is (reluctantly) working for the agency as an informant, which is how he comes to spend this third issue tied to a chair, pummeled through an integration by a larger man demanding to know what he’s done, for whom, and why.
This is in many ways a rote scene, a borderline cliche. It’s also carried on through two issues now and in less capable hands would already feel tedious. What makes Cover #3 work—especially as it pertains to its target audience—is that both the hero and the antagonist beating him senseless are comic book artists. Our hero wasn’t kidnapped from an impossibly chic casino, he was snatched at the French comic art festival, Angoulême (the comics industry equivalent of an impossibly chic casino). In between blows to the head and face, our hero and his tormentor (himself probably an Esad Ribic analog) exchange blunted critiques of work and skillsets. In one highlight, the bad guy gets insecure and stops the thrashing after the hero insults his writing, looking for reassurance by asking, “But you like my painting.” To which his captive responds, “I do.” After a quick word of genuine thanks, the interrogation rolls onward.
What I like most about this issue, though, is the way it uses comic book artwork. That sounds obvious, but I’ll explain. Cover #3 has several comics within a comic, deploying examples of its characters’ artwork as a means of cluing readers in on their dispositions and mindsets. For example, when someone asks the Mack standin what sort of guy the other artist is (the one who would later tie him down and beat him), the book cuts to the man’s comics. Instead of a panel showing him, say, getting angry in traffic, we see his actual artwork, which is violent and intense, effectively portraying him as having an unhinged potential for violence. Mack’s character, meanwhile, is working on gentle forlorn projects featuring under-estimated youth samurai and a sad astronaut who has become untethered in space. It’s a stark contrast from his tormentor’s two-page spread of detailed and gratuitous norse warfare (rendered with distinct and sinister style here by the all-time great Bill Sienkiewicz).
It’s still relatively early in this book’s life, but Cover seems poised to be among the best of Bendis’ creator-owned work, feeling timeless in a way some of his other non-superhero stories haven’t in the past. Bendis’ Superman run is one of the most exciting things at DC right now. Cover, however, is the Bendis comic I look forward to most. As a long-time reader vested in the medium to a point of near life disruption, this is just such an ideal way to consume a comic book story. Would Cover #3 (and the rest of the series) work equally well for a more casual reader? I’m not quite sure it would. I also don’t think that matters. This is a book with a precise and esoteric target audience, and it’s giving them (or rather, us) a wonderful story to follow.
Writer: Bryan Hill
Artist: Leandro Fernandez
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Bryan Hill and Leandro Fernandez’s American Carnage #1 is the third title in DC’s ongoing Vertigo Rebirth, and like its imprint mates, it deals in subject matter torn from today’s headlines. Other comics have so far dealt with mythical monsters born of racism on the U.S.-Mexico Border and with a society of witches manipulated into subservience to patriarchal ideals. American Carnage is about a disgraced FBI agent going undercover in a white supremacist movement to investigate the murder of one of his former colleagues. Hill has described it at conventions as, “white supremacist Game of Thrones,” noting the book will go to uncomfortable places to realistically portray the hate mongers at its core, potentially humanizing them.
This first issue brandishes that discomfort right from its start. Page one is a nine-panel grid depicting a battered FBI agent in a formal proceeding, discussing the death of a fellow agent. Captions and dialogue are set atop a suspect, his wife, and their infant child, a smiling baby boy…who is also swaddled in a Nazi flag. Page two next shows the murdered agent hanged in a tree above his dead dog as an idyllic family home burns behind him, racial epithet scrawled on a sign around his neck. These pages function well in tandem, as if to say, yes members of hate groups are real people with families of their own, but they are also broken in dangerous ways that pose threats to others and themselves.
In this way, American Carnage #1 is an unflinching debut, intent to sugarcoat nothing, not the humanizing qualities of hate group members nor the evil they support and carry out, the pain and suffering they reap upon society. Even the title is a provocative one, borrowing a key phrase from the inauguration speech of the current president, who has been oft-accused of not only stoking racial tension, but at times dog-whistling white supremacy groups. It’s all timely stuff. If, however, this was all this comic had to offer, it might make for a thoroughly dogmatic read, potentially even dull. But that’s not American Carnage #1.
We don’t see the main character until the first third (essentially the first act) of this comic has concluded, with Hill and Fernandez instead using pages one through seven to detail the case he will later investigate. That’s all fine, almost standard really in stories with a crime at their centers. The art and writing here are executed so well anyway that most readers will be both engrossed and oriented from the story’s start. The main strength of this debut is perhaps its ratio of relevance to character and plot. It’s a tricky balance, to be sure, and it obviously remains to be seen if the creative team can maintain it. The first issue is a strong one, though, well-paced and ending on a one-two punch of cliffhanger and powerful imagery (look for the little boy with the iPad—ouch) that has me intrigued by American Carnage’s potential.
- In Batman #59, Tom King’s Knightfall 2018 continues, with Bane playing a more cerebral, gaslit game now. King’s deep Bruce Wayne character study aside, I’m appreciating this run’s timely idea of a foe attacking in amorphous ways tough to pin down (ahem, Russia analog, ahem…).
- Dan Abnett certainly makes an exit this week, concluding a run of three years and 50-plus issues (counting miniseries and tie-ins) with Aquaman #42, a fever dream in which Arthur gets a pep talk from his dad atop a sea of blood before waking up to land a monster uppercut on Poseidon. Go big, right?
- Speaking of big, in Justice League #12 the Drowned Earth story continues, a war of attrition illustrated here with wonderfully-nightmarish Frazer Irving artwork. There’s also a tantalizing mention of the ideological chess match raging between Martian Manhunter and Lex Luthor, which breaks down to cautious passivity versus reckless proactive use of power. I’m looking forward to more of that soon.
- If you’re still reading Damage, this week’s issue features a novel reward: a battle with Flash, Guy Gardner, Vixen, and Green Arrow, which is basically like watching them fight the Hulk.
- Finally, between last month’s Batman: Secret Files and this week’s Justice League Dark, Detective Chimp has become one of the more emotionally complex characters in the DCU. That’s right, Detective Chimp.
Miss any of our earlier reviews? Check out our full archive!