On Comic Books and Race

So, I picked up The Flash Annual #3 last week and was introduced to the New 52 version of Wally West. This Wally is a kid, kind of a punk, and a person of color.

Wally’s race change has stirred up a bit of controversy on the web, and it’s prompted me to think a bit about how the big two are approaching the whole diversity problem.

By “problem” I mean, comic books are too white, probably too male too, but definitely too white. A disproportionate number of Marvel and DC’s major heroes are white. Let’s be honest, 100% of the main heroes in the big two are white.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman. All white.

Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Thor. All white.

That’s a problem for both companies, especially since, through film and television both Marvel and DC are trying to reach bigger and broader audiences. Reaching those audiences depends on viewers and readers being able to identify with the people they see on the screen and on the page.

Both companies have tried different strategies for diversifying their lineups. Marvel changed Nick Fury from a white man to a black man. With the start of the New 52, DC promoted Cyborg from the Teen Titans to the Justice League. And now they’ve transformed Wally West into a biracial man.

I’ve gotta say, I appreciate what Marvel and DC are doing. I agree comics should be more diverse, but there’s something unsettling about these tactics to me.

Cyborg’s promotion to the Justice League is transparently about race. I find he sticks out not because of his colour, but because he’s the only member of the team who isn’t one of the World’s Greatest Superheroes. There’s also something a little disturbing to me about just “painting” a character a different color and altering their racial identity.

The main thing that bothers me though is that Marvel and DC seem to making these changes where the stakes are the lowest. We’re not going to see a black Tony Stark, or a black Clark Kent, but we’ll get a black Nick Fury. We’ll make Flash biracial, so long as we’re talking about Wally West and not the “real” Flash.

When I was a kid, I remember a couple of Image comics challenging racial norms in more authentic ways. Spawn’s alter-ego was Al Simmons. Al was a dead man who made a deal with the devil because he wanted to be reunited with is wife, Wanda. But when Al “returned” to earth he found his wife was remarried to another man named Terry and they had a daughter named Cyan. All of those characters were black, and in the mid-90s Spawn was among the best selling comics going.

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Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon also had minority characters in prominent roles. Two of Dragon’s romantic leads were Rapture and Alex Wilde, both women of colour.

I think diversity in comics is good, and maybe retroactive diversity is necessary if DC and Marvel want to keep supporting characters like Nick Fury around while they work on a more realistic portrayal of the human species, but I think some of those early Image comics point to another path.

Where are the original characters? Why not create compelling new minority characters to lead their own series? Turning Wally West into a biracial man is well-intentioned but it’s also kind of gutless. If you’re really going to ret-con race, you have to do better than that. Make Barry Allen black; make Bruce Banner Asian, or give Jubilee her own series.

Credit where credit is due: Marvel does seem to be making some moves in the right direction. Miles Morales has recently taken over for Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe. So we’ve got a black Spider-Man.

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This year the House of Ideas also introduced the world to a Muslim Ms. Marvel. The book has sold well so far and has received some critical acclaim.

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These to me are more authentic and more meaningful ways of diversifying comic book universes; However, again there’s still something safe about these moves. Miles Morales is to Peter Parker what Wally West is to Barry Allen. Ms. Marvel is a recognizable character, but she’s not Iron Man or Captain America.

It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see a Latino Bruce Wayne; to my mind the best bet for really diversifying the pantheon is to create compelling new minority heroes and villains.

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Buy Multiple Copies of Lumberjanes; Read One

I’m a 30-something guy who likes superheroes, sci-fi, and crime noir stuff. I am in the target demographic for most comic books being published today. I am not in the target demographic for BOOM! Studios’ Lumberjanes.

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I found it in the “All Ages” section of my local comic shop, not my usual corner of the lcs, but I was looking specifically for Lumberjanes. The book is about a group of girls at a supernatural summer camp. It’s funny and sweet. In the first issue our heroes break curfew to fight off a pack of three-eyed monster foxes. Lumberjanes is sort of Scooby-Doo meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer at summer camp.

Its aesthetic is something like Adventure Time, but it’s a little less second-wave emo, if you know what I mean. Lumberjanes is more earnest and little less weird – more My Little Ponies. It has the potential to be a great, ironic adventure series about monsters and mysteries. When I was reading it, I was thinking, this book has that kind of “cool” factor I wanted to find in Black Science or Dead Boy Detectives but just couldn’t. You could say that there’s an “it” factor here that’s just hard to replicate; you could also just say this is good writing. After one issue, I feel like I know the characters and I like them. I want to read more about them. If you enjoyed The Fox, or you enjoyed some of the other books I’ve mentioned here, I’d recommend you give Lumberjanes a try.

It’s a cool book, though it’s a little precious in places. There’s dialogue like “What in the Joan Jett…” and dialogue like “I like kittens!” There are moments when the book is needling you in the ribs with its girl-positive message, but it’s not overdone. The art and the story are strong enough that this doesn’t feel like an animated lecture about male privilege. It’s a comic book about friends who fight monsters and get in trouble and argue and tease each other. They happen to be girls – sort of awesome girls.

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Ultimately, the story is good, the characters are well drawn, and the art is stylish. I’m going to buy future issues of Lumberjanes. And if the series has hooked someone like me (way outside it’s target demo) I’m guessing it’s going to be a cult hit amongst the younger set. I’ve got a hunch about it, I think the first issue could be an in demand book before long. I’ll be picking up more copies on my next trip to the local comic shop.

 

Caliban and The Field: First Issues and The Elevator Pitch

While driving in the car last week, I heard this great radio bit on elevator pitches. An Elevator Pitch is a concise, catchy synopsis of an idea. Imagine you’ve stepped onto an elevator with a movie producer or a bigwig from a publishing house. You’ve got about 30 seconds to pitch your best idea before the person who can give you your big break gets off the elevator.

The story reminded me of a couple of new comic book series: Image’s The Field and Avatar’s Caliban.

I picked up the first issues of both series about three weeks ago because the previews I found online were concise and catchy – great elevator pitches. Here are my synopses of the first issues:

The Field: An amnesiac wakes up in a field wearing only his underwear and holding a cell phone. A stranger arrives in a car and offers the amnesiac a ride. Just then, our protagonist starts receiving cryptic texts warning him of impending danger.

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Caliban: Garth Ennis, creator of Preacher, brings us a new sci-fi thriller about a spaceship that crashes into an alien vessel… while travelling in hyperdrive. The resulting accident fuses the two ships together, and the human crew of the Caliban comes face to face with another species.

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Both of these series have a “cinematic” feel to them. In both cases, the opening premise grabs you. I mentioned in a post about “binge watching” that this seems to be an increasingly common trope in comic book storytelling.

I’ll pick up the second issue of both of these series. Both The Field and Caliban made me wonder what was going to happen next. This is more than I can say for some other recent high profile releases like Undertow and Deadly Class.

From a speculation standpoint, both of these series are limited, not ongoing. So the ceiling is likely capped in terms of monetary value, unless one someday becomes a movie. Of the two, Caliban is a much more traditional sci-fi story. If you were betting on one of these being optioned for film or television it would be the Ennis book.

So, in conclusion: provocative storytelling, limited re-sale value.

Pretty Deadly & Ten Grand: Occult Comics Done Right and Wrong

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For awhile there, back in the summer of 2013, Ten Grand was one of my favourite comic books. The first offering from J. Michael Straczynski’s Joe’s Comics label over at Image, Ten Grand was a film noir story with a supernatural twist.

Now, from the get-go, Ten Grand was derivative. Joe Fitzgerald is a mob enforcer. When he and his girlfriend, Laura, are brutally murdered, she goes to heaven and he goes to hell. Except that an angel intervenes and offers Joe a deal: work for the forces of good and every time he dies in a righteous cause he’ll get to see his beloved again for five minutes. The five minute thing is weirdly specific, but whatever.

So, mix together Hellblazer, The Crow, and Spawn and you kind of get Ten Grand. But early on, the mixture worked.

It worked in part because of imaginative little details. Joe had a variety of talismans and gimmicks he used to ward off and take down demons. There were a few clever and creepy confrontations with otherworldly creatures. And there was a cool hardboiled vibe to the comic; Joe was trying to solve the mystery and that gave the series a natural narrative drive.

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Ben Templesmith’s art on those early issues was also something to behold. Templesmith created a compelling urban landscape, it was sooty and greasy. It had a really distinctive style, something really special. Templesmith left the book after issue #5. It was a weird situation. Apparently, Templesmith was having trouble getting the work done, and Straczynski decided to make a change… or maybe it was Templesmith’s decision. It’s all a little murky.

I appreciate the desire to get books out on time, but looking back, Stracynski should have done whatever he had to do to keep Templesmith. No offence to C. P. Smith, Templesmith’s replacement, but the book hasn’t been the same since he took over.

However, the decline of Ten Grand isn’t all about the art. In the second half of the series, the main character, Joe goes on an adventure in the afterlife. The whole trajectory of the series changes. Instead of a cool supernatural crime story we get watered-down, warmed-over Milton. The whole series is heading towards a climactic battle between heaven and hell that really doesn’t feel very climatic. Ten Grand is the story of a once promising comic that went terribly wrong.

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Image’s supernatural western series, Pretty Deadly, has followed a different path. I was a little skeptical of Pretty Deadly at first, a little worried it was more hype than substance, but the series is starting to come together.

There isn’t anything else like Pretty Deadly out there. For that reason, the first few issues were actually a little disorienting. The main character of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s comic is Death’s daughter. Her name is Ginny and her story is narrated by a butterfly and a rabbit skeleton. (Yes, that is a thing you just read). Ginny’s world is populated by half a dozen other wanders and gunslingers all of whom seem to have mysterious, shadowy pasts.

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It wasn’t until issue #4 that the relationships between some of the characters were clarified and things started to come together. That’s a long time to wait for a new series to pay off, but Pretty Deadly has something – an it factor. It’s been compared to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and those comparisons aren’t too far off the mark. Obviously Pretty Deadly has a long way to go before it matches one of the greatest comic book series of all time, but the magic and the mood and the kooky narrative framework do remind one of Gaiman’s work.

Emma Rios’ art is mostly gorgeous. There are some moments where it’s hard to tell what’s happening. The violent fight scenes can be hard to follow, and characters are occasionally hard to distinguish from one another. That said, there’s a vivid and eerie visual atmosphere to this book. It doesn’t look like anything else on the shelves.

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I’m not a TPB reader, but those who are might appreciate reading Pretty Deadly in trade form. The first arc will come off best if read all at once. And I’d recommend you do check out Pretty Deadly; it’s fresh and different. I used to feel the same way about Ten Grand, but sadly, that series has failed to deliver on its initial promise.

Shocking Comics and Binge Television

So, Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead was pretty shocking. I won’t spoil too much. I’ll just say some characters died in dramatic fashion. That episode got a lot of fans talking, in much the same way fans were all a twitter last year after Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding episode. The second season of Netflix’s House of Cards began with a similarly shocking turn of events.

Episodes like these really mark the divide between the new “binge television” and traditional serial dramas.

The objective with most traditional TV dramas is to get on the air and stay on the air as long as possible. The recipe for that seems to be finding a formulaic plot that can be run repetitively over and over again.

Every episode of NBC’s Law and Order or CBS’s CSI is essentially the same. There’s very little variation in the plot structure from week to week, and there’s almost no character development. The same goes for comedies like The Big Bang Theory: the jokes are essentially the same in every episode. In traditional TV, nothing significant changes from episode to episode, season to season. Change is the enemy. When a key actor leaves a series, or when characters get married or have babies, it often means the end is near.

One might say that a lot of the material coming out of the Big 2 comic publishers, DC and Marvel, works the same way. Batman is always pretty much Batman. Peter Parker dies, but then, a year later, he’ll come back to life. Does anyone really believe that Wolverine isn’t going to get his mutant healing power back? Sure, maybe it takes 12 months instead of 22 minutes, but as story arcs end and creative teams move on, the status quo is always reestablished.

Netflix, HBO, and AMC have been doing something very different recently. They aren’t trying to produce shows that casual viewers can pick up and drop and pick up again. They don’t care about making it easy for the uninitiated to jump on at any point and immediately pick up the plot.

Netflix, HBO, and AMC use a different model. They want to “hook” a committed audience of viewers who they expect to tune in every week, or binge watch a series in a weekend. They then try to grow that core audience through word of mouth. Hooking an audience, getting them addicted to a series depends in large part on shock and awe. There need to be unexpected twists. Viewers need to feel as if they can’t miss an episode because something significant could happen at any time.

My impression is that, more and more comics are applying this same storytelling model.

Disclaimer: the rest of this post contains SPOILERS for Sheltered, Jupiter’s Legacy and The Wake. To be clear, I’m only talking about things that have already happened in these series. I have no knowledge of what is going to happen in future issues. 

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The first issue of Ed Brisson’s Sheltered: A Pre-Apocalyptic Tale (which has recently been optioned for a movie) has a shocking finale. As the story begins, the end of the world is coming, and a band of survivalists are preparing for the worst. The first issue catches the reader off guard; just as we feel we’re getting to know the guys in charge of the compound, they’re all brutally executed… by their own kids! The series that looked like it was going to be about the beginning of the end of the world, turns out to be a re-imagining of Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Recent issues of this series have turned the tables again; we’ve gotten our first glimpse of the world outside of the compound and it’s possible the apocalypse is not as imminent as it seemed to the well-armed anti-government types we met in the series’ first arc. All those people stockpiling guns and living in trailers might not be survivalists, but rather paranoid conspiracy theorists. 

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Jupiter’s Legacy, an Image title written by Mark Millar and drawn beautifully by Frank Quietly, is another kick at The Watchmen can, insofar as it’s a superhero comic that really tries to grapple with the nature of superheroes. One could also say it’s a mix between Kingdom Come and The Fantastic Four. The series focuses on a tight-knit group of superheroes who received their powers after a trip to a mysterious island. Now though, they’re older and somewhat jaded after a lifetime of superheroing. Their children have inherited their parents’ powers. Through these kids, Millar is able to analyze the young Hollywood set, the Brody Jenner’s and Paris Hilton’s of the world, people who find themselves famous simply by nature of their existence.

The series takes a radical turn when, three issues in, super-offspring Brandon kill’s his Super-dad on the advice of his ambitious uncle, who has dreams of using his powers to turn the United States into a socialist utopia.

Issue 4 of this series was just released after a very, very long hiatus. It’s a high quality book, so fans are likely to stick with it, and maybe in the interim, Jupiter’s Legacy picked up some buzz. I know I didn’t start reading it until after the third issue was published. However, mixing cliff-hanger endings and unreliable publication schedules can be a dangerous game.

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Scott Snyder’s The Wake is among the most interesting comics being published today. Snyder and artist Sean Murphy have done some amazing things translating the conventions of the horror movie genre to the comic book medium. They’ve also chosen a highly imaginative and unfamiliar antagonist for their book: humanity’s underwater “cousin,” evolved over millennia into highly intelligent, predatory mer-people.

The Wake is a 10-issue mini-series, and five issues in, Snyder did something totally unexpected, killing all of the main characters, and destroying the earth as we know it. The sea monsters won! The second half of the series, unexpectedly, flashes forward a century into the future. The world is a completely different place and we’re introduced to a whole new cast of characters. It’s not at all clear where The Wake is going and that’s a good thing. It’s a thrill ride, totally original and filled with unexpected twists.

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It shouldn’t be a surprise that the three titles I’ve mentioned here are published by Image and Vertigo, two publishers that specialize in mature and off-the-wall stories. I think it’s fair to say that Image and Vertigo are the AMC and HBO of the comic industry. Image in particular has published a plethora of hot, “must-read” series in the past 12 months. That success might have big time consequences.

Four or five years ago, the big networks like NBC, ABC, and Fox weren’t really worried about boutique cable channels like AMC and HBO. Now, however, those networks, along with Netflix have started redefining the way people watch TV. The Walking Dead has become a ratings juggernaut. More and more AMC and Netflix seem like the future. Meanwhile NBC wonders why viewers aren’t interested in their new Matthew Perry sit-com? 

One wonders if the comic book industry will move in the same direction. Will Image’s more mature, less conventional series start to threaten the publishing paradigms that have governed the Big 2 for the past 30 years? Only time will tell.

Copper and Chrome

The Nightmarish Genius of Kelley Jones’s Batman

One reason digital comics will never replace print comics is because, unlike magazines, newspapers, or novels, comic books can’t simply be reduced to “plot” or “information.” A comic book story can, of course, be translated to a digital medium, but something is necessarily lost in that translation. And that loss is greater than the loss suffered by a novel or newspaper. If this weren’t true, there would be no such thing as comic book collecting.

Our attachment to print comics is an attachment to physical objects, to the tactile experience of holding pictures and turning pages. Many people aren’t content to store all their personal photos on a hard drive: they want some of them framed. Many people aren’t content to look at paintings on Google Images: they want to hang them on their walls. Just so, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to a place where comic collections exist exclusively in a digital form. Comics aren’t like novels or DVDs, because of the art.

This meditation on comic book art has led me to think about some great, underrated comic book artists. Take for example, Kelley Jones, the artist who defined the look of Batman in the late 90s.

I remember Jones best for his cover illustrations. They’re weird and dark. Jones gives us a funhouse mirror vision of the Batman’s Gotham, and it stays with you. The more I read comics, the more I’ve come to recognize that I love style. I don’t just want good art, or realism, I want art that has meaning, art that builds a world. That’s style, and Kelley Jones has it.

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Two things come up when people talk about Kelley Jones’s Batman: the cowl and the cape. Jones elongated Batman’s “ears” and his cape became an almost overwhelming heap of liquid black and blue. It’s not realistic, but it is stylish. And there’s meaning in that incarnation of the costume: Jones draws Batman the way the criminals of Gotham see Batman in their nightmares. His is the Batman of bad dreams. His Batman is a ghoul, a demon. He looks like he just stepped out of a scary story, and he should, because Batman should be scary.

Jones may be best known for his work on the Knightfall storyline. He really defined the look of Bane. Jones draws Bane as a hulking mass of muscle. It was fitting for a guy addicted to super steroids. Bane’s size and stature are overwhelming; he looks like a man capable of breaking the Bat. 

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In this next one, which I love, Bane looks like a dark god or a devil rising up from the Inferno. Even the Batman of bad dreams looks tentative and defensive when confronted by the giant, glowering villain.

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I’m sure there are some people out there who really dislike Jones’s exaggerated style. The case against him would, I suspect, be that his costumes and figures defy reality. Think for a minute, though, about that criticism. Comic book art has never had much to do with realism. Jack Kirby’s figures are overwhelmingly geometric. His male figures are barrel-chested he-men, all foreheads and jawlines. His females are stacks of trapezoids – hourglasses with poofy haircuts. Understand that I’m not trying to insult Kirby here. I’m merely pointing out that superheroes have always been stylized. Some styles are more realistic than others, yes. But to compare comic art to reality is a bit like comparing bicycles to Harley Davidsons. Yes, some bicycles are more like Harleys than others, but none of them are very much like Harleys. 

The exception that proves the rule might be Alex Ross. Ross paints beautiful realistic superheroes. But think about how unprecedented and unusual Ross is within the industry.

It’s not that good comic book art is “realistic” and bad comic art is “exaggerated.” It’s that certain artists like Kirby or Ditko have such compelling styles that they make an imprint on our brains. The great comic book artists have a powerful influence on how we imagine heroes and villains. It’s because great artists leave such a mark that it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the virtues of alternative or original styles. I think those who are resistant to Jones’s style are resistant because they’ve been so powerfully seduced by other styles like Neal Adams’ or Jim Lee’s. 

Kelley Jones had a incredible, original vision. He did some amazing stuff with Batman. His covers are dark and beautiful. I’m happy to have them in my collection, so that I can hold them in my hands and look into the dark.

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What’s Worth Reading Now?

Shortly after starting this blog I put together a short list of four comics that I couldn’t get enough of. I’m still reading those books, and I still really love them. But I’m promiscuous in my affections; I can’t be tied down by any one universe or any few books. Here are a few more series I’ve had eyes for lately.

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 I’m a big Superman fan, but I’m often disappointed by Superman comics. Maybe I’m too committed to a particular interpretation of the character. I don’ know. I do know that I love Pak’s Superman. This version of the Man of Steel feels fresh and classic all at the same time. Pak’s Action Comics has a sci-fi feel to it: Superman fights monsters and explores underground civilizations. There’s a retro vibe, but the story never feels goofy. Also, there’s a healthy dose of Lana Lang. (You know how much I love Lana Lang). So far in Pak’s run, Lana has been Clark’s foil. She’s ballsy and tomboyish and she has no problem giving Clark… er… Superman a piece of her mind. Lana also adds tenderness and warmth to the series though. As the figure of first love and missed opportunities Lana fills the pages of this book with an atmosphere of nostalgia that fits Superman perfectly.  I recommend you start reading Greg Pak’s Action Comics with issue #26. Skip the Zero Year tie-in (#25).

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Alex + Ada is unlike anything else I’m reading. It’s a near-future sci-fi tale about young man whose grandmother buys him a fully functioning female automaton. Obviously, there are lots of potential  advantages to having a robot assistant/companion, but Alex’s grandmother clearly thinks that he should use Ada for … um… adult… things. The comic speaks metaphorically, of course, to the ways our friendships and relationships are increasingly digital.  People use the Internet in all sorts of ways to satisfy their social desires and exercise their sexual demons. Ada is just a logical extension of those drives. But Alex never feels quite right using Ada as a sophisticated scratching post. He begins exploring the taboo world of sentient A.I. That’s when things get interesting. The art in this series is superb. Everything is clean lines and subtle facial expressions. Beautiful stuff. I’ve never seen a comic that can make sitting down and having a conversation look so interesting.

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Let me start by saying this: God bless the local comic shop proprietor. As I was perusing the rack today, the manager at my local shop came over and all but shoved a copy of Moon Knight #1 into my hand. I was considering picking up Magneto #1, but I had no interest in Moon Knight. None. I picked it up solely based on my comic guy’s enthusiastic recommendation. And I loved it. Normally, I like to wait a bit before giving my verdict on a new series. First issues can be a bit like movie previews – lots of promise, not a lot of substance. You don’t know how good the series is going to be until you’re into a story arc. Just like you don’t really know how good the movie is until you see it. All that said, Moon Knight is off to a very promising start. This may seem like strange compliment, but this is a Marvel book that feels like an Image book. It was dark, mature, and cool. I should stress that I had no previous experience with Moon Knight. I have no experience with the character, no knowledge of his back story, no attachment. Nothing. So, as “jumping on points” go… let’s just say “nicely done, Marvel.”

Note for speculators: if I had to put money on an All New Marvel Now series becoming “hot,” I’d put my money on Moon Knight.

Copper and Chrome