Look, there are a lot of comics out there. Too many. We can never hope to have in-depth conversations about all of them. But, we sure can round up some of the more noteworthy titles we didn’t get around to from the week. Today, we discuss Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw 9, Jem and the Holograms Valentine’s Day Special 2016, Jughead 4, Last Sons of America 3, Limbo 4, and Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars 4.
Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw 9
Spencer: When we’re young, our understanding of the world is limited. We tend to think that our experiences and the worldviews shared with us by our friends and family are universal, when clearly that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is what Dusty is learning throughout his journey, and especially this month in Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey’s Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw 9. The issue finds Leonid and Dusty hailed as wizard heroes in a simple sheep town; it’s a totally new experience for Dusty, one far different from how his father had always explained it.
Dusty is essentially a rich city kid visiting the country for the first time, and astonished to see his somewhat elitist assumptions shattered. We’ve yet to really learn much about the main threats of Autumnlands (be it the threat destroying all magic or Erries’ mountaintop menace), but it seems quite likely that gaining more understanding of the world and the perspectives of all its inhabitants could be key to winning the battle, especially since the conventional wisdom of the very set-in-their-ways wizards has so far been a complete failure. Leonid’s a great teacher in that regard; despite his appearance, he’s able to blend in anywhere he goes, instinctually relating to people and understanding how to deal with them, and never hesitating to adjust his own behavior if it will bring about the desired outcome. It’s a quality most of the Autumnlands’ animal citizens seem to be lacking, and therefore one that could be quite useful for Dusty. I can’t wait to see how he continues to develop as a character.
Jem and the Holograms: Valentine’s Day Special 2016
Ryan M.: It’s not enough for Checkov’s metaphorical gun to go off, it must also satisfy reader expectations. In Jem and the Holograms: Valentine’s Day Special 2016, the promise of a love spell is kept, but the execution falls short. With the randomness of a sitcom’s holiday special, Kimber visits a fortune teller who offers a potion to make an upcoming meeting between the Misfits and the Holograms go smoothly. On the way into the meeting, Jerrica notes that she hates when people try to touch Jem when she is simply a hologram. So, to recap, we have two rival bands and their nefarious manager in a room with a pitcher of love potion and the lead singer of one of those bands is actually a mute mirage.
The page above sets it all up so well. Each character gets their own panel, mirroring their positions at the table. I love the detail that each of them drinks with their eyes closed. This is where I got really excited. Who was going to fall in love with whom? Would there be love triangle, or maybe a love rhombus? Would one of the Misfits fall for Jem and then discover her secret when they tried to make a move? Of course, the ensuing pages deflated all of that excitement. Instead of falling for each other, Aja and Jetta fall for a ramen chef. Stormer is head over heels with a random barista and Roxy loves bagels. Okay, I really did enjoy the bagel thing, but otherwise? The rest of the issue was a letdown. I mean, Eric and Pizzazz fall in love, but we barely get a glimpse of them. I want to see what evil Eric and Prim a-donna Pizzazz are like when they are swept away by romance. Instead, we get a weird scene where Rio ties up his girlfriend’s sister with duct tape to stop her from hitting on the proprietor of a hardware store. Also, the idea that Synergy’s holograms cannot be touched is totally thrown away as Jerrica conjures a few of them so that they can round up and throw the other girls into a van. Despite how creepy that sounds, the issue maintains the levity and playfulness that makes the series so fun. Unfortunately, I was distracted by the issue that might have been.
Spencer: At this point, Chip Zdarsky is probably a more notorious character than almost any of the characters he actually writes. I’ll admit, the main reason I’ve picked up every Zdarsky-penned series I have is because I knew it was guaranteed to make me laugh, but almost equally impressive is Zdarsky’s ability to milk some real pathos out of his characters without ever slowing down on the jokes. Jughead 4 is a prime example. Both segments of this issue are chock-full of laughs, yet they all come from a surprisingly dark place: Jughead’s failures, insecurities, and rapidly-dwindling sanity.
Take this month’s fantasy sequence; Jughead dreams the thing while being pelted by dodgeballs, essentially using his imagination as an especially immersive escape from an increasingly oppressive reality. Even in his dream he can’t win, though;
Jughead’s Slackbeard’s crew mutinies, his attempt to scam Captain Principal is quickly thwarted, and his Slackbeard persona is actually his time cop persona suffering from amnesia. Talk about bad breaks! This amnesia almost seems to be Jughead’s subconscious acknowledging his own sanity crumbling — while we see Jughead growing progressively more frantic and paranoid across the course of the story, it’s never summed up more clearly than by these two panels in the dream sequence.
Between the deathly pale skin and the deep sunken eyes, Erica Henderson expertly captures a Jughead on the brink of a full-scale mental breakdown (the talking crown helps in that regard, too). Experiencing poor Jughead’s misfortunes only makes his victory at the issue’s end (convincing his friends that he’s right about Principal Stanger) all the more cathartic. I can’t imagine how great it’ll feel once the Riverdale Gang takes Stanger down once and for all.
(Also, this issue finally gives canon confirmation that Jughead is asexual, and I think that’s pretty cool.)
Last Sons of America 3
Drew: No matter how many times I’ve seen Pulp Fiction, I can’t help but smile at the scenes between Butch and Fabienne. Plenty of characters in that movie have a similar kind of effortless rapport, but none manage quite the same level of sweetness as Butch and Fabienne. I suspect a part of this is that Fabienne is basically the only character in that movie who is neither the victim nor perpetrator of a crime. She’s actually innocent, lending a unique buoyancy to her scenes. Indeed, that innocence isn’t just rare in Pulp Fiction or Tarantino’s filmography, but in the crime genre generally, which tend to be mostly populated with bad guys, albeit sympathetic ones. Last Sons of America set out to turn that notion on its head, following two idealists working within murky circumstances to provide for children in need and desperate would-be adoptive parents. Unlike Fabienne, though, their innocence can’t last, which makes issue three particularly heartbreaking.
It’s not just that everyone turns on them, or that it seems they can’t beat the system — it’s that the system had already beaten them. After capturing both brothers, Don Carlo reveals that they’d been working for him all along, supplying child slaves to his drug operations for years. That’s a hell of a twist, made all the more bitter by the sheer hopelessness of Julian and Jackie’s situation — tied up and held at gunpoint, they seem all but doomed. All of which is to say: this issue is gruelling. Whatever small victories Jackie is able to accomplish early in the issue just bring him closer to the pit that is the Merc, as well as his inevitable capture. And then there’s the slow demoralization of Julian, who starts off the issue so convinced the truth about Don Carlo’s child slavery will turn the world against him, only to learn that, not only does nobody cares, he’s actually been complicit in the scheme all along.
As bitter as those pills are to swallow, this issue is brilliant in its unflinching account. Matthew Dow Smith’s noirish shadows provide the perfect accompaniment to Phillip Kennedy Johnson’s world-weary dialogue, both working in harmony to emphasize the issue’s sense of hopelessness. It’s a tough read, but it’s remarkably well done.
Drew: How much mystery is too much mystery? We might expect a villain or a femme fatale to be shrouded in mystery, but what about the rest of the cast? The setting? The hero? There’s mystery surrounding all of these elements in Limbo, and while issue four starts to provide some answers, those only bring more questions — and that’s before the fishmen return.
At the start of the issue, Clay is captured and thrown into the Thunderdome with an alligator. He manages to survive, but that just lands him in another execution scenario. Fortunately, Bridgette arrives, revealing that she’s not quite the double-crosser he thought she was. Or, is it that she’s actually a triple-crosser? We don’t get enough here to parse her game here, but it’s clear enough that Clay was just a pawn in her game, and that the fight with the Teleshaman was actually a ploy to free the Teleshaman from the Thumb’s employ. Clay manages to escape, but gets himself into a different kind of mess with the fishmen, interrupting a cannibalistic human sacrifice only to be threatened by that tentacle monster from issue one.
I hate to get into such a blow-by-blow summary, but the issue’s charm truly lies in the way these madcap events pile on top of one another, zigging and zagging in unexpected ways. The Teleshaman actually working with Bridgette all along makes a kind of sense in a noir, but the fact that he does so by driving a muscle car across an indian-head test pattern is exactly the kind of weirdo nonsense I come to this series for. You don’t need to know exactly what’s going on to know that it’s an absolute blast.
Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars 4
Patrick: I recently caught up on season two of Fargo. Between that and going to see Hail, Caesar!, I’ve got a lot the Coen brothers’ affinity for anticlimax swirling around in my narrative processor. If you’re unfamiliar with the Coens, one of the hallmarks of their movies (and that beautiful television program based on their movies) is that characters and story threads can come to unceremonious endings, sometimes unexpectedly, and sometimes even off-camera. The technique is equal parts surprising and unsatisfying, but it undeniably imbues their work with a narrative energy that I don’t really see matched elsewhere. Enter Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars 4, which puts our characters in a bind, and simply refuses to find a way for them to get out of it with their skin intact. It should go without saying, but: significant spoilers follow.
The Sionnu Science Union has our rag-tag group of heroes surrounded, and in deciding how they should proceed, one of them mentions that they’d like to get Glork for dinner at some point this weekend – an odd, tangential idea. But Yuri latches on to that: “glork.” What is glork? Clearly, there are more urgent matters to attend to, but Yuri’s already done, in his head, the kind of shortcut-to-conclusion storytelling we’re about to see Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta engage in with this issue. Yuri says turn the Gray over to the Science Union, but that resolution is transmuted when Judge Ryleth — annoyed that he’s not going to get his reward — decides to board the ship and claim the spores himself. Then his plan goes tits-up almost immediately too, and half of our characters have their heads exploded by that Judge hammer as a result. The Gray might get his revenge (in the form of “the most righteous genocide in the history of the universe” – great fucking line), but ultimately, everyone we’ve met over the last three issues is killed, their ships destroyed, and we’re left floating in space with Yuri and Laika.
Which is where we find Hickman and Dragotta at their most staunchly unsentimental. Yuri tries to comfort Laika as they’re being pulled into a sun’s gravity, but she won’t have it. Throughout this final scene, Laika insists that she hated everything about her life since being launched into space. The last possible cold comfort we could take is that these two lifelong friends die together, but Laika’s last words are “Yuri… I’ve never liked you.” And then Dragotta fires his last shot at Yuri and Laika:
It’s a harsh reminder that — no matter how much it may have resembled Star Wars in the last couple issues — Manhattan Projects has a very specific set of nihilist values, and no high-fantasy, science-fiction saga is going to change that.