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Derek Mainhart: Provocative title, eh? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute. First to some (finally) finished business.

Scott Carney: Finished, indeed–at least as far as Animal Man #18 (DC) finishes anything.  And thank the good Lord, too.  The Rot was wearing on me, man.  It’s no secret: we didn’t care for the big two-part Rotworld finale for an unholy host of reasons.  Lucky for us, the finale was only the finale of the storyline as it takes place in the actual Rotworld; and by actual, I mean possible because, in the end, Baker and Holland were presented with the opportunity to keep it all from happening in the first place–and, boy, did they take it!  I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of the real finale, however, without first commenting on the ill-conceived cover.  Jae Lee’s anguished Animal Man is stunning; and the cover would’ve been, too, had it not been sullied by a tragically-placed assertion that spits vomits in the eye of subtlety:

I mean, come on!  Check out this art-only cover; it’s so much more effective:

Animal Man #18--Right?

Animal Man #18–Right?

Add the requisite logo and bar code and we’re still talking about an absolutely killer cover.

DM: Have to agree about the cover. Without the text, completely effective. With the text, it’s like that oft-parodied film cliche of the tragic hero falling to is knees while yelling “NNOOOOOOO!!!!” up at the sky. In other words: laughable. The early front-runner for worst cover of the year.

SC: Once inside, we’re treated to a quick little recap of the end of Swamp Thing #17 and then sucked into what Buddy refers to as “the most unsettling sensation,” while describing his return to the pre-Rotworld present.  I found the narration unsettling, as well; it seems to creep toward the edge of profundity, never quite making it there, and, as a result, festers in ineffectuality and leaves behind unintentionally laughable lines–and a hero for whom I had trouble hoping the very best.

(I don’t do this very often: spoiler alert!!!)

I did find a truly touching moment in Buddy’s remembering Cliff’s finger painting different animals when the latter was “a little boy.”  I’d have trouble, though, if you were to ask me to “flip the pages and point to another” such moment.  Couldn’t do it.  See: after that singular scene–in retrospect, the necessary father-and-son set-up for the end–the story dies as quickly and as unceremoniously as Cliff–who passes proudly as a “hero–just like [his father],” which, on a side note, is an interesting counterpoint to something Jeff Lemire’s developing in another one of his books, Green Arrow #18: Komodo, the Bullseye to Green Arrow’s Daredevil, has a daughter who–speaking of unsettling–plays the role of an evil apprentice, who also has a connection, story-wise to fingers, oddly enough; in this case, the little girl is used as a pointed threat against one of her father’s prisoners: “[…], or my daughter starts cutting off your fingers.”  (By the way, I’m still not too sure how I feel about it.  Kudos to Lemire for that!)

Back to Animal Man and the devolution of the story: with my own fingers dutifully turning pages, I found the dialogue disappointingly reminiscent of #17 (“So just die already!”).  And how strange was the splash on page 18, with the guys in the yellow suits shedding their rot?  At last!  Something interesting!  But, despite their presence on the page, neither Buddy nor Maxine react to the seemingly important revelation; and when Buddy finally does seem to notice them–several panels later–he doesn’t seem all that concerned!  It was all so very awkward and forced–well, Lemire did have to live up to the promise of the textually explicit cover, after all; couldn’t bring myself to care, though, even with the final splash–and just not what I’ve come to expect from the aforementioned esteemed writer, who is an absolute master at developing sympathetic characters and complex yet relatable relationships.  My expectations are still high for him and Animal Man, so I’ll be sticking around for more–especially since we’re headed in a new direction.

DM: Scott Snyder, on the other hand, in Swamp Thing #18 (DC), ties a bow on this story, and his run, in a manner that is satisfying and organic (pun intended–every time!). Amidst Yanick Paquette’s gorgeous leafmotif visuals is a story where the damsel becomes the hero, the demon is rent asunder, and our lovers have their stars well and truly crossed. But not before the creators generously allow them one last (first?) kiss, in which their passion literally burns. A fitting finale to a mostly excellent run.

But Swamp Thing and Animal Man aren’t the only hero-inhabiting-a-new-body-travels-to-a-dystopian-future-to-defeat-unearthly-evil-then-returns-to-the-present-in-order-to-prevent-it-in-the-first-place stories this week. That’s right! The same exact plot is featured in Dynamite’s Dark Shadows #14!

Dark Shadows #14

Dark Shadows #14

Ah well, no new ideas and all that; it’s how well you handle them. Writer Mike Raight’s vampiric version involves Gothic plot twists, backstabbing (with wooden stakes, natch!) and enough Grand Guignol action to satiate any horror fan. Artist Nacho Tenorio does a nice job orchestrating the gore, alternating between excess and restraint, the way any 1960’s-influenced horror should. This isn’t all superficial bloodletting however. (SPOILERS!) Raight infuses some depth and existential quandary as the evil that the hero, Barnabas Collins, must destroy in order to save his family, is himself. There’s also a well-wrought, even delicate twist, as Barnabas’ mysterious ally reveals that aiding him and taking revenge upon him are, in this case, one and the same. Solid and compelling, this book is one of the most reliable sources of monthly macabre that you’re likely to find.

So, having been hooked by our attention-grabbing title, you’ve made it this far through our post, and yet you find yourself disappointed by the lack of any content that could be considered truly eye-opening.

SC: Hey!  What about my–

DM: Well then, you’ve got an idea of the experience of reading Sex #1 by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski (Image).

SC: Oh, I see.  Clever.

DM: Mr. Casey means well. In a heartfelt (and rather breathless) afterword, he holds forth on the state of today’s comics; mainly the continued dominance of the Big Two despite the wild variety and quality of other work out there. Well hear, hear! And yet, what does he offer us? A wealthy scion reluctantly returns to run his vaguely defined corporate empire. A seedy underworld controlled by a grotesque mob boss. Words of wisdom from a trusted Man (or in this case, Gal) Friday. And, oh yeah, said wealthy scion is a former superhero. This set up bears any number of resemblances to Batman, the newfangled Green Arrow, Ex Machina (a much better melange of superhero/real world tropes from eight years ago), etc. But wait, this has superheroes and sex. Well Watchmen broke that seal long ago. It’s simply no longer a shocking conceit (I mean even Catwoman’s done it for chrissakes). Now, to Casey’s credit, when the naughty section does occur, despite its fairly graphic nature, it’s contrasted in such a way that it is robbed of nearly all prurient titillation. The participants even call out the reader’s presumed lasciviousness, in a clever use of breaking the fourth wall. Kudos to Casey for subverting the expectations set up by his conspicuous title.  But in the end, this is just another superhero comic. And what’s so sexy about that?

SC: I hear ya.  Image did have another release this week that I enjoyed more than Sex

DM: (tee-hee!)

SC: Uh-huh. Anyway, it’s Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Lost Vegas #1.  It came with a little less hype than Casey’s book did, but it was loads better.  Though engaging from the get-go, McCann’s writing does prove a bit hard to swallow at times, especially as the Ocean’s Eleven-esque scheme is laid out; but Lee’s artwork is enviably voluptuous, a stunning exercise in sensuality.

DM: Yes, Lee’s work is certainly the star for me thus far. She blew me away on Return of the Dapper Men a few years ago (also written by McCann). There she dazzled with an unorthodox process that combined vibrant expressionistic backgrounds with the sublime precision of Winsor McCay (if you don’t know who that is, look him up. Look him up now.) Here the chameleon-like Ms. Lee seems to be offering something of the sensual loucheness of Aubrey Beardsley, combined with the sci-fi sensibilities of Richard Corben, and even a dash of Hayao Miyazaki for fun.

SC: That’s some company she’s keeping.

DM: Indeed. Like Batwoman, this could become a book that I buy for the art alone.

SC: Well worth the price of admission.  I’m certainly up for round two.

DM: Now, returning to our theme, for a nuanced, astute, refreshing exploration of sex, one need look no further than Adventure Time with Fionna & Cake #3 (kaboom!):

Adventure Time: Fiona and Cake #3

Adventure Time with Fiona & Cake #3

Sex, in this case, denoting gender. ‘A childrens’ book?’ you say, eyebrow ever so arched? Well in its brief existence, Pendleton Ward’s magical juggernaut has tackled such concepts as abandonment, existential loneliness, first loves, the bonds of honor and friendship, pride, sacrifice, betrayal, the origins of myth, the nature of evil, the afterlife, determinism, fate, and nuclear annihilation to name a few. It never addresses these issues head-on however (it’s much too smart for that), but from rather more of a sideways angle, (and perhaps, blindfolded). Y’know, Stuff Happens. Each candy-colored episode is wide open to (and the subject of) much interpretation. It’s the type of show that dissertations will be written about someday(if that hasn’t already happened). I ask you, what better place to consider gender and identity issues than the sociological phenomenon that is Adventure Time?

For those who don’t follow the show (losers!) Fionna and Cake was a fan-favorite episode which featured alternate, gender-swapped versions of series’ stars, Finn and Jake. Now Natasha Allegri, who had a hand in that episode, gives the ladies a chance to shine in their own title. Issue 3 is the best one yet. The first two issues established the characters as well the epic, yet tongue-in-cheek tone that AT does so well. The third issue really delves into the gender stuff and shows why this is not your father’s (um, older brother’s?) AT. The story begins with Marshall Lee (the male version of the vampire Marceline from AT) suddenly appearing in the lead characters’ home in a state of distress. But unlike his female counterpart, who is decidedly bad-ass, this vampire is positively sparkly. Needless to say, Fionna has a crush (-and Cake does not approve!) It seems they need to rescue Prince Gumball, who is caught in a ridiculous trap, which I won’t ruin for you. Nor shall I spoil all the loaded symbols, pregnant pauses and hysterical double entendres peppered throughout the tale. These never come across as forced or excessive; they are, indeed the story’s raison d’etre. I will say that they culminate in a visual gag so audacious that I couldn’t believe it was in a children’s comic, even as I barked with laughter. And yet it perfectly encapsulates the major theme of this series. Sound dirty? Well, again, it’s not because all of the above is not so much dealing with sex, as it is gender and identity. I am not suggesting (as I have with AT’s sister book Bravest Warriors) that this title is inappropriate for children. Part of Allegri’s brilliance (in addition to the beautiful art) is that this book is, on the literal level that children tend to read, an exuberant, imaginative adventure/fantasy. It certainly can (and should, to some degree) be enjoyed that way. The storytelling is deft enough that whatever other meaning children take away from it is entirely up to them. And you. Book of the Week.

Turning pages,

Derek & Scott