Image Comics June 2016 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Black Canary #12
Written by Brenden Fletcher
Art by Annie Wu, Sandy Jarrell and Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

The history of Black Canary is one of the more complicated chronologies of the DC Universe. She’s existed in print since the 1940s, became a refugee of Earth-2 in the 1960s, was re-established as the daughter of the original, and then retconned in the 1980s to explain that the original Black Canary infused her already super-powered daughter with her own memories and sent her to Earth-One. None of this matters, of course, in a post-Crisis/Flashpoint/"New 52" world, except that this final issue of Brenden Fletcher’s punk-rock Black Canary, he manages to pay tribute to all of that while fully embracing the future.

Having cycled through musical references from the Stooges to Bauhaus, Fletcher opens with a firm tribute to the late, great David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as the band has their own “Rock and Roll Suicide” moment in this series finale. Indeed, this is the title of the issue, as D.D. announces that this is the last show for the band. What follows is completely unexpected: a flash-forward over the course of decades, as Fletcher traces the fame and fortune of D.D.’s career against the backdrop of the world falling to the power of Ravedeath.

What Fletcher does with the structure, a mix between a “Behind the Music” special and an Elseworlds tale, is explore the choice that has always been inherent in the revived title. Just as Fletcher did with his final issues of Batgirl, contrasting the older version of the hero with his own millennial-oriented one, his “rebirth” of Black Canary comes as a clever way of integrating DC’s current event with a definitive statement on his version of the character. The storyline itself is actually a ruse, initially distracting us from the cliffhanger ending from the previous issue, but the two coalesce in a mic-drop finale worth of the titular band.

After tag-teaming art duties the last few months between Annie Wu and Sandy Jarrell, the duo combine to deliver the visuals for the conclusion to this arc. It’s unfair to speak about their separate contributions, as the pieces are a holistic sum of their parts. Whether it is the Spiders from Mars opening, the mirror-image duality conveyed through looking at fans through the windows of a limo, a martial arts street-brawl comparable with Deadly Class or the psychedelic freak-out of the big bad’s final challenge, Wu and Jarrell pull out every trick in their arsenal. Lee Loughridge nails the musical and artistic legacy from the color point of view, gradually withdrawing the saturation on the flash-forwards before reminding us of the purple punk that kicked this series off. There’s a beautiful visual homage to the various moments in Black Canary history, a Multiversal punch that ties in spectacularly with the Rebirth reveal of Wally West and the Speed Force.

Black Canary is about to embrace part of her legacy by co-starring in the relaunched Green Arrow, and Fletcher, Wu and Jarrell leave us in no doubt that they’ve restored the kick-ass history of one of DC’s most powerful female leads. While it might be a shame that Canary no longer has her own series, having never made it past a dozen issues of a solo title, this perfect mashup of music and comics plugs straight into the mainline of everything that has made Black Canary an essential part of the DC Universe for almost 75 years.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Howard the Duck #8
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Joe Quinones, Joe Rivera and Jordan Gibson
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Leave it to a duck to break your heart.

Howard the Duck has been in a lot of scraps over the years. He’s fought wizards and supervillains and killer robots, jumped from world to world, and even become the Nexus of Realities. But leave it to Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones to come up with a far more arresting battleground for their plucky duck detective — the return of his one-time sidekick and ex-girlfriend, Beverly. While Zdarsky and Quinones are telling a story with a three-foot tall waterfowl, they still wind up delivering one of the most resonant and bittersweet Marvel stories in quite some time.

Relationships end. More often than not, that’s just what they do — but whether you’re a comic book reader or a sarcastic, often self-absorbed duck from another dimension, you’ll never forget the One That Got Away. But with Howard the Duck #8, Zdarsky winds up performing a moving autopsy on Howard and Beverly’s post-mortem relationship, exploring how this unlikeliest of pairs wound up deeply affecting one another. Howard, for one, feels he was abandoned by the person he was closest to — but Zdarsky doesn’t let his interdimensional nomad off the hook easily, showing all the times Howard overlooked (or flat-out ignored) Beverly’s hopes and dreams while he was off playing the hero of his own story. It’s a universal trope, looking back on failed relationships like these — and Zdarsky has the intelligence to realize that it’s easy to miss the signs where things went wrong, even in retrospect.

But there’s also a certain sweetness amongst the emotional wreckage here, because Zdarsky doesn’t make Howard and Beverly’s dynamic a hostile one. It’s easy to break up with someone when they clearly hate you — but it’s all the more heartbreaking to see that as Beverly looks back on the times she and Howard had together fighting Z-listers like Kulan Gath, Doctor Bong and Bullmarket, she’s still crazy about her “Duckie.” (When you learn that Beverly has gone to school to become a veterinarian, it’s simultaneously endearing and heartbreaking — it’s such a wonderful gesture, and yet it’s one that Howard is totally oblivious to.) But despite his wisecracking public persona, Zdarsky shows he has the maturity to understand why Howard and Beverly didn’t work out. While at first all these death-defying adventures can be fun and exciting and romantic, Beverly is the one who winds up recognizing that Howard isn’t just a magnet for trouble — despite all his vocal protestations, he secretly relishes being on the path to self-destruction. If you don’t know someone like this — assuming you’re not someone like this themselves — you’re one of the lucky ones.

With all this poignant tension, it helps that Zdarsky is working with Joe Quinones, an artist who can deliver some much-needed nuance. From the moment we see the smile on Bev’s face as Howard walks up to her unassuming house in Maine, you know there’s history there — with just one panel, Quinones hints at a world of good times and bad, that vulnerability mixed with excitement, skepticism and just a hint of temptation. But while it would be easy to let Beverly steal the show — and believe me, she does — you can’t help but marvel at the expressiveness he gives Howard, as well. Whether Howard’s doing some over-the-top gesturing as he overplays a joke about tea versus coffee (“What, did the Nexus dump me in jolly old England, guv’ner???”), or the sheer sadness in his eyes as he realizes that only thing stopping him from a normal life with a great woman is himself. Meanwhile, Quinones teams up with Jordan Gibson on the colors for this book, and let me tell you, this is a beautiful-looking book — there’s so much depth to the visuals in this book, but often without too much in the way of rendering.

If there’s anything that hampers this issue slightly, it’s when the other shoe inevitably drops, and the craziness comes looking for Howard. Zdarsky and Quinones usually do a great job at throwing in some wacky spinoff concepts into this series (like the hilarious running gag involving a very guilty Spider-Man), but having a Punisher-themed Sentinel (with a surprisingly Hello Kitty-esque color scheme) feels like a tonal misstep after this deep, emotional reunion. But even that I can’t complain about too much — this too-jokey sequence helps seed in a terrific curveball towards the end of this issue (and I’m not talking about the great cameo from a real-life celebrity). It’s a spectacular, beautifully illustrated beat to wrap up Howard’s story with Beverly, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Zdarsky and Quinones return to collect on this twist soon enough.

But ultimately, it’s not about twists or continuity that makes this issue of Howard the Duck great. It’s taking a character who is typically known for his surface-level high concept and occasionally grating persona and digging deeper, showing that this duck may have a lot more in common with his readers than we might typically expect. By casting Howard through the lens of someone who, despite the distance and recriminations, has and always will love him, we wind up discovering there is a lot more to this wisecracking waterfowl than just his absurdities.

Credit: Image Comics

Renato Jones: The One% #2
Written by Kaare Kyle Andrews
Art by Kaare Kyle Andrews
Lettering by Jeff Powell
Published by Image Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

“No one can touch me. Not unless I want them to…”

Call him artful. Call him audacious. Call him angry. I’m not just talking about Renato Jones: The One% — I’m also talking about Kaare Kyle Andrews, the writer, artist, colorist and (as he’ll proudly tell you on the cover) owner of this series. Vividly rendered with his kinetic, fluid linework, Renato Jones feels like the Occupy movement’s very own version of the Boondock Saints, a tough-as-nails killer going after the amoral fat cats of the mega-rich business class. Yet in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, a book like Renato Jones might find itself in the crosshairs of an important question in entertainment — can this politically-charged book withstand deeper scrutiny of its own values, or can it succeed exclusively based on Andrews’ undeniable action chops?

However you might answer that question, it’s clear that Andrews revels in the freedom that creator-owned comic books gives him here. I think I audibly gasped when I first read this issue and saw a Donald Trump lookalike on the first page, calling people “loser” while he bemoans his string of bankruptcies — and that’s not even taking into account the shocking, black-and-white double-page splash that shows what this amoral fat cat gets up to behind closed doors. While his dialogue isn’t always the most polished (particularly when it comes to introducing Renato’s childhood friend Bliss, who at one point bites a naked Jones’ ear saying “‘Cause I LIKE”), Andrews is using fighting words, and given the whirlwind of destruction that Renato Jones typically brings in his wake, I’m curious what other kinds of sacred cows Andrews has in mind for future issues after he gets done with his thinly-veiled take on the GOP frontrunner.

Yet ultimately, a book like Renato Jones isn’t content with just jeering at the One Percent — and that’s where this book gets tricky. If you look at this book in a vacuum, it’s a real tour de force, as Andrews knows how to lay out a fight scene. Jones — or “The Freelancer,” as he calls himself while he wears his black-and-white mask — stretches and bounces like rubber as he tears through his billionaire enemies and their collection of bodyguards, with a particularly great panel of the Freelancer turning towards us and firing a gun with a serrated blade at us. Another image, featuring a gold Lamborghini zooming across the California coast, looks magnificent, while there’s another page that’s played out as literally balletic, with Jones leaping, spinning and shooting across a crowded room. Anchored by a pervasive, blood-red background, and Renato Jones is a book that’s visually arresting above all else.

And yet, given this weekend’s violence in a gay nightclub in Orlando, there are bits of Renato Jones that feel uncomfortably timely. It’s obviously not Andrews’ fault, mind you, as this ussye was completed weeks if not months ago, but watching a lone gunman wreak bloody havoc through an unsuspecting crowd suddenly feels like a queasy proposition to promote, even as Andrews has the Freelancer snap into action only after being brought to a den of child sex slaves. But ultimately, that brings into sharp relief the real questions behind Renato Jones — is there ever a justification to kill over politics and class? Right now, Jones is portrayed with the same type of hyper-detailed monologues as American Psycho, but Andrews hasn’t given him the same sort of obvious problems that, say, Alan Moore had given his and Dave Gibbons' own morally-askew vigilante Rorschach. In terms of pure quid pro quo, Renato Jones right now seems to be about a gunslinger fighting against a murderous and rapacious cabal, bringing pain to others who bring pain — but when played out on a macro scale, this series winds up reading a bit more like a bloody fantasy more suited to the Republican ticket.

The kind of dissonance brought by Renato Jones #2 is in part because Andrews is not just an incredibly talented artist in his own right, but because there’s clearly something to his high concept here. Evil billionaires — and I’m sure people can readily come up with at least one example — do exist, and they even thrive because they have ensconced themselves in the arms of the law. Having a vigilante take down these avatars of greed is powerful wish fulfillment, and Andrews tries to have his cake and eat it too by having his hero churn through the most heinous of villains. But at the same time, having a work that’s this based in political affairs automatically invites deeper thought — and right now, Renato Jones: The One% is undeniably rich in style, but might find itself in philosophical foreclosure if it doesn’t build upon its violent, black-and-white foundations.

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