I’m writing live from my local comic shop, Conquest Comics in New Jersey, and trying to sum up my reactions to what can only be described as a massive week for comics.
This is the week for the release of three books I’ve been anticipating since they were announced, all for different reasons. Sandman: Overture doesn’t need a lot of introduction but I’ll add my drop to the ocean of response it’s generated already because Sandman had a part in making me a comics journalist. I recently wrote about that experience here and why Overture is bound to break my brain. The Fox represents, for me, the widest playground yet offered to the silver age sensibilities of Dean Haspiel’s clear-line dynamism, and from what I’ve seen of what’s coming for The Fox on the drawing board, the book is going to get so much weirder and more celebratory of comics than anyone can currently imagine. Now I have it in print in my hands and I’m just so thankful that it exists for fans. Five Ghosts is a series I’ve followed since its first self-published issue, before it was picked up by Image, and I’ve only marveled at its well-deserved rise to shake up the mainstream. Here with a one-shot #6 before it returns this autumn we get something we haven’t fully seen before, a full story devoted to Japan and samurai tradition already inherent in one of Fabian Gray’s possessed incarnations. It’s a week for the fruition of many things and there are many good books out this week. But I’m picking my three to talk about on a personal level.
The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III has a cover to make the hair stand up on your neck, but we already knew that. For me, seeing those two names together on the cover was a major landmark in itself. In it, we get a return of the cosmic level themes we’ve seen in The Endless graphic novel collection (as Rich Johnston noted yesterday) and a primordial sense that reminds me of the famous Tennyson line, “nature red in tooth and claw”. Only plants. We see Dream as a Plant. Try to take that in for a minute, but really you’ll be trying to take that in for the rest of your life if you’re a Sandman fan. It also reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s near-work on Saga of the Swamp Thing, and his essay on Vegetable Theology that paved the way for his work on Black Orchid. The dream-life and emotional life of plants has always been on Gaiman’s mind and now he gets to take things into even more challenging realms. The book has a double page spread for the Chapter One mark that is explosive. I could stop there—that’s a book in itself. Already Dave Stewart’s colors are searing and pervasive, reminding me that the three part team on this book is the real TKO.
The book jumps between the cosmic and the human world set at certain points in time, and that movement will also remind readers a little of Books of Magic, and the fact that you mentally carry all those worlds along with you as you read the story is part of the fascination. You’ve seen the cosmic, and it informs your view of the return of the Corinthian as a character and the world of a dreamer in 1915. Take that in, but you don’t have long to process the reveals before Destiny joins us. And we see Dream as a turn of the century utterly commanding gentleman having a tete a tete with the Corinthian. Like the reader, Dream is pulled away toward epiphanies so massive that it needs a quadruple-page fold out to even start to tell the story of what is happening. One of my personal favorites from the Sandman stories is any time when Dream is confused and has a hard time making sense of things. That’s kind of the definition of the “sublime” in the arts, when something is so vast that you have to step back and try to view it from a distance to comprehend and experience it, like the Alps, or the painting of an Old Master. But Dream won’t let us step back. We travel with him into the disorientation and the feeling that the first issue of Sandman: Overture creates is as important as the information it’s communicating. The suggestion of the book is that the world of Sandman is even bigger than we’ve experienced it before, though we’ve always known it could be, and it’s been up to us to keep that in mind.
Rich wrote about the art in Overture yesterday, and how it was written essentially for J.H. Williams, and it’s hard not to agree. His ability to craft layouts that confine the expansive and expand the ordinary is pretty much unparalleled, as he’s shown on Batwoman and Promethea. There’s no challenge he’s not up to and he devises impact on such a psychological level that it’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by his work. And all that is true of Overture. But I think what makes just as significant an impact in this book is his bizarre versatility. To create Books of Magic, it took several artist to conjure all the feels of different spaces and times, but Williams does it here in compressed fashion, turning and transforming settings page by page and rendering characters solid even in this pure wash of the imagination. As I suspected, the quadruple spread gives you a heretical urge that shocks you—to rip it out and hang it on your wall. Rip pages out of Sandman: Overture #1?? And you’re locked in a terrible internal struggle to respect the book in tact. But it’s hard, folks. It’s just too beautiful to have reactions that are anything but contradictory. Someone said that they hoped this book lived up to my expectations given how high they were. I never had a second of doubt on that front, but I knew that what I really wanted was something I couldn’t have imagined at all. Isn’t that the point of Sandman? I couldn’t have imagined this, no. It’s bigger than that.
Fortunately, Dave McKean’s variant cover for the issue can be placed in one of those hard cases as is and hung on the wall, floating planets, enigmatic red throne and all. Thanks, Dave—I don’t have to squirm on that one. It should be hanging in the National Gallery in London. When that happens, I’ll be writing live from the National Gallery…
Deep breath. The Fox gives me a false sense that this is a world I can hold onto a little more easily and get my bearings, but not for long. By the way, I was a little nervous that I might not manage to get all three variant covers of The Fox this week, but I did and now I can breathe again. We have Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” cover, his official “The Fox” cover which was previewed at New York Comic Con, and Darwyn Cooke’s beasty painted cover of the Fox in black running wild in a fleet of foxes in an autumny wood, and Fiona Staples’ lush painted and poised photog Fox descending on you. The covers for this book are going to be mega throughout. I wouldn’t be satisfied with Dean Haspiel if the story didn’t open with a blow-by-blow punch up. His autobio and Billy Dogma comics are known for their freeze-frame slowed time depiction of brutal impact in basic fisticuffs. It goes brilliantly with the writing in narrative boxes from Mark Waid, “What I long for is a simple life. That’s my problem” as we get an entrée into the deep conflicts in the book, led by The Fox’s inner schism. His desire to leave the superhero life and cease maintaining two identities. It’s reassuring and pretty damn funny how Haspiel always manages to work the villainous side of love into his works, and strikes new notes every time. In The Fox, he renders it all as literal as possible with a character who can manipulate those around but is shockingly monstrous on many levels. Even better that he’s drawing on long-established characters here from Archie Comics’ Red Circle universe—even when it comes to many of the villains.
The physical movement in the book is something you simply won’t see anywhere else. Haspiel has devised his own power chords in those chosen moments of motion stopped in time. When he renders them, he neatly removes all excess transitions and presents you with just enough information to put the visual narrative together and challenges you to keep up. The Fox’s “voice”, though, is also one of the strongest elements of the book, the way in which he speaks to the reader and establishes his slightly down trodden bad ass smart alec defiance in spare language, and that’s down to Mark Waid. No surprise given his masterful work on Daredevil, and the way that The Fox straddles two lives and finds the melancholy zone of loneliness between the two is no doubt drawn from handling Murdoch’s constant state of tension. Does Fox #1 live up to my expectations? Come on. It’s a sleek, stream-lined introduction to an old world rendered new for us, and it’s sexy and it’s got all the right swagger. This is comics done the right way, ways that don’t even occur to people to try. If you’re not reading The Fox, you may not realize that comics are stronger now than we have any good reason to deserve given how little creators are paid and how difficult it is to get distribution for original concepts. By the way, Archie Comics just announced that The Fox has sold out on the Diamond level, so get it while you can!
Which brings me to Five Ghosts which is spooky just in time for Halloween. In fact, there’s a cute Halloween Phantom Variant cover out, if you’re so inclined. Five Ghosts is another score for the grass roots creators with bizarre ideas that just might become fan favorites if they make it into print. Ordinarily written by Frank Barbiere (whose career is exploding right now), and drawn by Christopher Mooneyham, this issue is a special one-shot in many ways, and drawn by the great Garry Brown. The increasingly iconic Lauren Affe is still on colors (check out her work on Buzzkill, too) and here we have a formative experience in the life of Fabian Gray as he fields sharp insults and memorable instruction as a “wild brute” from a Japanese princess. Five Ghosts deals in legends, and the legend in question in issue #6 is that of “The Masamune”, two brothers who are challenged by a demon to craft a peerless sword in exchange for eternal life.
Brown does some delightfully creepy work rendering ersatz monsters and unpredictable underworlds as Fabian searches for the legendary blade and in terms of plot, readers of Five Ghosts will get another piece of the puzzle concerning the Moonstone that gives Gray his powers and also threatens to destroy him on a regular basis. Though Gray has some “tricks of his own” when things stack up against him, Barbiere doesn’t let up on his tendency to point out the faults and the limitations that Gray struggles with, which always make for an unpredictable book to keep you reading. Issue #6 is a visually stunning book, and like many Hellboy one-shots, has a tightly rendered storyline that gives you the sense of a greater understanding of the universe of the series while delivering still more of the elements that make the books attractive in the first place. This kind of affirming installment sets us up nicely for the return of the ongoing series a little wiser about Five Ghosts and the kinds of stories it will tell.
The other books I would ordinarily be reviewing and recommending this week include The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys #5 from Dark Horse (the cover alone will give you a double take), Richard Corben’s The Raven and the Red Death, also from Dark Horse and part of Corben’s consistently riveting takes on Edgar Allen Poe, Saga #15 from Image which has quite a sexy cover this week (I don’t think I have to explain why you should be reading this anymore), and Itty Bitty Hellboy which has a humorous take on “Hellboy in Hell” and some of the most entertaining cartoony artwork out right now by Art Baltazar and Franco. That’s a lot of Dark Horse and Image, but good books are good books, and I hope you’ll check them out.
My mind was fairly broken by Sandman: Overture, so I’m calling it a day. And I’ll spend the rest of the day trying not to rip out that quadruple spread. Trying.
Special thanks to Conquest Comics in New Jersey. You can find their Facebook page here. They are currently dominating POP vinyl collectibles with their White Phoenix exclusive and now have their Metallic Harley Quinn exclusive in stock.
Hannah Means-Shannon is senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.