Beneath the surface: a review of The Underwater Welder

The waves are high and the sunset’s red. So now it’s time to go to bed.

The tide is up and the wind does rip. But worry not, ’cause we’ll never tip.

We’fe far at sea, days from land. But if you’re scared just take my hand.

Just hold on tight, boy-o-mine. In my arms you’ll be just fine.

The moon is full, the sea is deep.

We rock and rock and rock to sleep.

The Underwater Welder by Jeff LemireJeff Lemire has become one of the most popular comics creators in recent years, working with DC Comics to write and illustrate titles like SWEET TOOTH and the new ANIMAL MAN. This year’s The Underwater Welder (from Top Shelf Productions) is a graphic novel entirely of his own invention, and Lemire’s keen moral sense of character and thorough understanding of happiness and sorrow, and of success and failure, translate wonderfully into this standalone tale.

Lemire has a knack for balancing simplicity and complexity with equal grace. Divided into four parts, The Underwater Welder is about a man named Jack who’s about to start a family with his wife Susan, but before he can move forward, he must come to terms with the past. He dives deep into the cold, dark sea every day not in search of riches or sunken treasure but answers. Years ago, when Jack was still a child, his father jumped into the ocean and never returned, leaving him and his mother alone.

Now, as he’s on the verge of becoming a father to a baby boy, Jack’s fears and doubts bubble to the surface. Was his dad really the hero that he idolizes, or has he been ignoring his loved ones’ advice and forgetting about countless disappointments? Susan is worried that Jack will turn into his no-good father at a time when she needs him most, and he almost disappears altogether — just like his dad did. To shoulder the responsibility of parenthood, Jack must understand his father not as a child does, but as an adult can. Fathers are human beings, with real moments of strength and weakness, and Jack must figure out what kind of man his was. But there’s a possibility that he’s searching for a truth he’ll never find.

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When past meets present: a review of Locke & Key, Vol. 5: Clockworks

Locke & Key

If you’re not reading Locke & Key from IDW Publishing, then you’re missing one of the best series in comics now. This review contains no spoilers.

Locke & Key, Vol. 5: ClockworksLocke & Key, Vol. 5: Clockworks by Joe Hill (writer) and Gabriel Rodriguez (illustrator)

Why is Locke & Key one of the most successful comics out there? The answer has something to do with the strength of writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez’s partnership. Hill introduced an original idea in 2008 with a strong follow-through — every issue pushes the story forward and keeps readers begging for more. Then, there are the gothic illustrations, which give the main estate, Keyhouse, that dark and foreboding mood we need to wonder what secrets are hiding inside. The monsters look real, the people are visibly distressed and haunted by their past and present lives, and shadows are everywhere. When you can’t see them, you can feel them in between the pages.

Locke & Key is rich with history and a growing darkness that’s unlocked with every finding of every key. We know there’s evil among the good guys, and it’s masquerading as one of them, listening to their conversations and manipulating them. When’s the last time a comic both shook you to your core with authentic, human feeling and messed with your head as much as it did the characters’?

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One of us: a review of Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2

Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2 preview

The latest installment of Superman: Earth One comes out next month. I didn’t find time to review the first volume (which came out two years ago) for my blog, but you can read my thoughts on it here. Or, if you’d rather skip to the good stuff, trust me when I say that the quality of Vol. 1 and 2 are the same: awesome.

Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2 by J. Michael Straczynski (writer),  Shane Davis (penciller), Sandra Hope (inker), and Barbara Ciardo (colorist)

Leave it to one of the best modern writers in comics to make Superman relevant again. The second volume of Earth One (on sale October 31 in comic shops and November 6 in bookstores) is a literal investigation into the man and legend: his personal life and why he refuses to let anyone get too close, his work persona and how he makes himself appear to the public, and also his budding career as the Man of Steel — whom the U.S. government is studying in case the world’s alien miracle ever turns on them.

As Clark Kent grapples with maintaining these identities, so does he struggle to find peace among them. The beautiful girl in the apartment next door wants to seduce him, but he won’t allow it: The risk of hurting her is too great. And as an up-and-coming reporter, he’s still learning how to balance hard journalism with the compassion that drives his stories. He finds similar conflict in his doings as Superman. This book tests his abilities to both help people and do what’s right for them; sometimes those two things can’t always be reconciled.

And to stop his newest enemy, the Parasite, who drains him of his energy and powers, Superman must walk as a mortal — helpless to the greater forces working against humanity. The experience is humbling, and it gives him a reason to fight harder. The world needs someone who can make it feel safe, even if it’s not.

Just as Superman is an alien in a human visage, the Parasite is a human in monster’s form. We see this kind of parallel of unbridled rage and strength in both characters, but it’s Superman who prevails: Not because he isn’t tempted to loose control, but because he is afraid to. That concern for the well-being of the people around him is what makes him a hero — and able to carry on where Parasite fails. At the same time, it cripples him, isolating him from the people he saves when he’s not wearing the suit. He keeps people at a distance, terrified that they’ll discover his secrets or come to harm because of them. These difficulties will continue to be a major part of Clark’s development as a superhero and as a person, and Straczynski ends the book with a sense of the growth ahead of him.

Shane Davis (the comic’s penciller) deserves accolades, too, for showing us the many conflicting sides of Superman: the vulnerable young boy, struggling in a world that can never truly accept him; the timid reporter and tenant, who keeps to himself to prevent others from learning the truth; and the dangerous, confident hero, carving his place in a world that needs him.

Straczynski ends the volume with uncertainties: two new figures are about to enter Superman’s life, and we already recognize their last names. But their roles are different — reversed from what we expect them to be. That air of mystery is what makes the book so irresistible. This is the Superman we know, but it feels like we’re only just starting to understand him.

Bottom line: The Superman you’ve wanted for years.

Grade: B+

Deaths in the family: reviews of Identity Crisis and Batman: The Court of Owls

I read two great graphic novels recently. Both deal with death and new beginnings.

Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer (writer), Rags Morales (penciller), and Michael Bair (inker)

Few comics can take a story about a superhero group and make it about a superhero family. Identity Crisis, which appeared in 2004, boiled the Justice League down to its most human, setting the powers aside. When the spouse of a League member is murdered, everyone, both heroes and villains, are in danger of falling apart. They cry and they fight, violently in the streets, both together and in opposition.

Writer Brad Meltzer is very good at taking larger-than-life characters and making them small, in more ways than one. The whole murder mystery, which picks off the JLA’s loved ones at random and without mercy, undeniably kicks them when they’re down, and Rags Morales shows us these characters at their most vulnerable — creating a picture of raw emotion, not always pretty. The Elongated Man nearly loses his form. Robin sobs, only just a boy.

Identity Crisis has many meanings, but it comes down to two things: First, finding yourself when all is lost and taken from you, and second, learning your role within a family. These superheros and super villains alike are families. They know the mask doesn’t protect them, but rather the people they care about, and when tragedy strikes, they help one another. The events of Identity Crisis do a lot to threaten that bond, but somehow, they persevere. They take care of their own, for better or worse. They hear and see what they want to, to keep peace among their numbers. They make sacrifices. They lose on both sides, and then win by surviving hardship.

The twist — the person holding the smoking gun in the end — was a little silly, but it’s more a vehicle to telling this story than the crux of it. If you can look past that part, then Identity Crisis is the perfect glimpse into the daily lives of superheroes and their foes, both the ones that are costumed and those that lie within us all.

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (penciller)

When you start a character and his universe from scratch, to make him stand out from his peers in an initiative like the “New 52,” you have to think big. More specifically, you have to build his city grander than before, cast his shadow longer, and give him a foe unlike any other he’s ever faced.

The Court of Owls is the perfect new beginning for Gotham’s watchful guardian because it challenges his right to that title. There are some secrets, it seems, that even Batman doesn’t know. He, the master of stealth and disguise, has been fooled by those who’ve hidden in darkness far longer: a secret society that dates back to his great, great grandfather, Alan Wayne.

Bruce wants to construct “a better, brighter Gotham” — but to do so, Batman must sink into unknown depths, both literally and metaphorically. When the Court of Owls trap him, a feat accomplished by only the fiercest foes, Batman degenerates in look, in health — horribly, like a monster, thanks to the artistic talent of Greg Capullo. What appeared to be another costumed wannabe, a fanatic with too much time on his hands, turned out to be a deadly threat and, yet, only a pawn — and thus starts the new chapter of evil in Gotham. The Court of Owls is only the preface to the story, and a dark omen to the darker days that lie ahead — a living challenge to the brighter world Bruce Wayne hopes to achieve.

Picking a freak at random is easy, but Scott Snyder tricks us into thinking any lunatic in mask and suit is a warm-up compared to the classic villains — that only the Joker and other timeless rogues like him can do harm. It’s not long before he shows us otherwise — that the new can be as powerful as the old, and that sometimes, they’re one in the same.

An excellent precursor to the new age of Batman.

Double special of Grant Morrison comics: reviews of We3 and Joe the Barbarian

For those of you who like graphic novels, I read two by Grant Morrison recently. My general stance on Grant Morrison? I love and hate the crazy bastard, but he’s one of the most inventive writers in comics now. When he does a comic right, he does it really right.

We3 by Grant Morrison (writer) and Frank Quitely (artist)

We3 is a surprisingly short comic book, but not by accident. I enjoyed the story so much that I tried to imagine ways it could be expanded into an ongoing series, but each scenario my brain cooked up resembled a goofy sitcom. Don’t let that fool you into thinking We3 is a work of humor. It most certainly is a work of anger and activism and love. Morrison takes three lost pets, turns them into man-killing machines, and makes you want to adopt them.

Why? Because their murder sprees are a result of human intervention. Always, always human intervention—in this case the military, funding yet another project to put them ahead in warfare. When the scientist who’s worked most closely with the animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) learns the experiment is not only being shut down, but terminated, she frees the dangerous and capable test subjects and surrenders herself to the consequences. The rest of the book is about seeing who wins: man or man’s Frankenstein creations.

It’s hard to imagine such a violent comic like this one causing the reader to tear up, but I did. In a brief span of pages, you come to love these animals as though they were still helpless pets. They were taught to work together, and in their fealty they remind us of how innocent they are under all that wire and machinery. They’re bred killers, trained to massacre, but they show more compassion than the people trying to restrain them.

Like the pets so many of us have under our care (I have three babies, myself), these animals think of home, friendship, and basic needs such as food. That’s what makes We3 such a shocking and meaningful comic—it teeters on the brink between sweetness and violence but balances both so well.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Joe the Barbarian: Deluxe Edition by Grant Morrison (writer) and Sean Murphy (artist)

Joe the Barbarian crosses children’s playtime with an epic fantasy of adult peril and consequences. When the boy Joe Mansion forgets his daily intake of glucose, his empty house becomes a gateway to a rabbit-hole realm that puts Wonderland to shame. His pet rat fights as a warrior, and each hypoglycemic step he takes in his house converts to miles in the land of Hypogea. As his imagination takes hold, casting him into a kingdom fraught with war and toy armies, one threat remains consistent in either reality: death.

Death himself shakes the foundations of Hearth Castle and the regions beyond, and Joe grows weaker as he stumbles downstairs and into the kitchen—an effort that stretches across the entire book’s length, as every staircase, room, and hallway brings new enemies and challenges. His quest for soda—a necessity that gains comedic effect as the comic goes on—leads him through the bloodied fields and towns of Hypogea, to cliffs on high and sewers down low. Each change in his house reflects back into the otherworld (eg., letting the bathwater run and overflow creates a waterfall in his hallucination), and as a perfect parallel to life, he makes new friends and learns to stand as tall as a giant. Grant Morrison bridges these two worlds with a lot of storytelling depth—each mountain and forest is aptly named, each person and legend translatable to Joe’s home dimension—and Sean Murphy builds it from the bottom up with awe and color and breathless wonder.

In one adventure, Joe must grow up—he’s the Dying Boy, fabled defeater of Death. But to save the kingdom means inching closer to his own mortality. The only thing more beautiful than the intricate, believable story is its ending: Readers watch as Joe matures from page to page, but it’s the last moments of the book that really cement his growth and identity. Joe the Barbarian not only comes full circle in small measurements; it comes full circle in a final, big way—the most important one of all for Joe and his widowed mother.

Rating: 5 out of 5