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Hot Ink — Reviews of Cap Reborn #3, Ex Machina #45, Beasts of Burden #1

ComicsAlliance’s Chris Murphy reviews the biggest and best comic books coming out this week.

THE ROLLING STONES AND IRMA THOMAS ARE ALL LIARS — Captain America Reborn #3

Issue #3 of Captain America Reborn releases this week, and to be honest, I remain not as excited by this one as I’d like to be. Captain America’s one of my favorite superheroes, Ed Brubaker’s one of my favorite writers, and Bryan Hitch draws great superhero comics, but it’s all adding up to less than what I’m looking for. It’s not that I find the jumping around in time disorienting. A non-linear presentation can be an interesting device to tell a story, and unlike some hack writers who do it because they’ve seen it work a few times and decide to try it themselves, I don’t think readers are going to find this annoying or confusing. But the two distinct stories of Steve Rogers flashing through moments of his life and Bucky Barnes and Agent Sharon Carter attempting to save him have yet to feel connected in any meaningful way, and the series has now passed the halfway point and has only two issues remaining.In more ways than one, as it’s still not clear why Steve in jumping back and forth in time, retelling the events of his life out of sequence to readers. Nor has he seemed to learn anything important from those travels. He hasn’t gained any great knowledge into his own life that wasn’t there before, he’s just stuck in reruns. The entire work seems to be waiting for a big finish to the series, which I wouldn’t mind if they’d given me a little more actual story in issues 1-3.

And then there’s the fact that the only Captain America actually rescued in this issue is Bucky, who was captured by Norman Osborn when his attempt to rescue Steve “Captain America Classic” Rogers went very badly in previous issues. So to recap, the series started with one Captain America in need of rescue, then quickly doubled that number, and has now returned back to where we started.

My problem is that while I’m interested in finding out how Rogers’ return is resolved, I don’t find the story being told to get there all that compelling. The pieces are all dropping into place for what could be a satisfying resolution, but the characters all seem to be treading water and waiting for issue 5 rather than building up any kind of narrative momentum to get there. Take Bucky. So far he’s tried to find Steve, failed, gotten captured, and gotten rescued. Steve, meanwhile, is jumping around in time re-experiencing the most notable moments of his superhero career, and maybe he’s got some idea that no one seems to be making any kind of progress in rescuing him because he’s attempting to take matters into his own hands. But because those efforts happen almost entirely out of panel we’re only witness to the exact replaying of past events. It’s almost like the writer knows he’s doing something that’s going to frustrate readers and doesn’t seem to care.

In conclusion, I have to ask myself why I’m bothering to read this now. I strongly suspect I might be able to pick up last last issue of the series and get about as much from it whether or not I’ve read the four issues leading up to it. Or maybe I’d get about as much out of the series if I bought all five issues, shuffled them around a bit, and then picked them up and read them randomly. Maybe there’s a brilliance in composition I’m missing that’s not yet apparent, I don’t know. In any case, my final verdict is that I’m leaning toward skipping issue 4.

STRANGELY ENOUGH, DON’T EXPECT LAST MINUTE SALVATION — Ex Machina #45

This week marks the release of “Ex Machina” #45, the first issue of the last story arc to Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ political superhero thriller published by Wildstorm. And as they conclude their story about a superhero who saved one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 and was elected mayor of New York City, one of the sub-themes they’ve decided to take on is abortion. I guess they want to make sure that anyone who might be able to be offended by the content of a political comic wouldn’t feel left out before they finished.

But wading into the abortion issue wouldn’t seem nearly so difficult for Mayor Mitchell Hundred and his staff if any of them knew the real problem facing them. Hundred’s strange power to command technology with his voice has led to the creation of a device that accidentally made another character able to command other human beings with her voice. And if there were any beliefs that her motives might not turn out to be threatening, issue 45 thoroughly proves such hopes to be entirely misguided.

Vaughan seems to have a thing for endings that are, at best, bittersweet. He left us with one in “Y: The Last Man,” and his graphic novel “Pride of Baghdad” didn’t exactly end on an up note. And there’s a special downer ending in store for those of us watching Lost, as Vaughan departure from the show’s writing staff means we’re not going to have his episodes next season, thus making the show all that much more infuriating to follow week to week. “Ex Machina” will be no exception to this trend.

Over the course of the series plot threads have disappeared for long stretches, making it all the more surprising when they do come back. And one of the easiest to forget after all this time is that the series began with Mitchell Hundred speaking from the vantage point of its conclusion, looking back on all the events that were about to unfold and relating them as terrible mistakes leading to a great tragedy. Readers are now finally about to witness all the little storylines that seemed to harmlessly disappear come home to roost, wreaking havoc and possibly killing off several significant characters along the way.

Part of what’s going to make a tragic ending to the series so striking to witness is that readers have seen the up close struggles of Mayor Hundred. And they’ve often been small struggles, dealing with discovering how hard he would hold to his beliefs when put to the test, with understanding the bizarre powers he’d been given, and most significantly with saving the few friendships he truly valued in his life. Watching it all crumble now is going to be especially painful after seeing how much work went into keeping everything together for four tumultuous years as mayor.

So the question isn’t how the characters are going to get out of trouble, but instead how bad things are going to get before it ends. Vaughan’s said that, for him, the series is about our desire to have leaders we see as “heroes.” Well, one yardstick often used to measure heroes is what they’re willing to sacrifice for others. Between Hundred’s friends, powers, and future political ambitions, there’s a lot to either be given up or lost as the series draws to a close. And I’ll be watching closely as it all unfolds.

SIT. ROLL OVER. BEG. EXORCISE THAT DEMON. GOOD BOY. — Beasts of Burden #1

Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson created several short stories about dogs and cats fighting the supernatural for past Dark Horse anthologies, and the reception was so positive that the characters have now been given their own series, with the first issue released this week as “Beasts of Burden.” Think of it like Scooby Doo, except that all the humans are dogs. And the dog is a cat. And the monsters are real. Oh, and one of the dogs can use magic. You
know what, don’t use Scooby Doo as a point of comparison at all. Think Homeward Bound if the screenplay had been supplied by Stephen King.

Oddly enough, for the first issue of a series “Beasts of Burden” #1 is not that great a starting point. So many characters are thrown at the reader quickly, and with such minimal introduction, that you may find it difficult to care about or even correctly identify the ones that start to disappear and then turn up dead. At least you might if you’re a heartless bastard like me and don’t immediately care about dogs and cats beautifully painted by Jill Thompson.

If you’re going to pick this one up, I’d suggest first reading some of the original short stories which can be viewed online for free on Dark Horse’s website. For those of you who like adorable cats and dogs, there’s a lot of them to be seen. For those of you rolling your eyes at the mere mention of adorable cats and dogs, one story involves dog zombies. There, now both groups should have a reason to go look.

To be honest, I enjoyed a few of those short stories more than I did the premiere issue of the series. While some of them were well-done homages to ghost stories or zombie films, “Beasts of Burden” #1 felt more like a talking animals adaptation of a direct-to-the-former-Sci-Fi-channel monster movie. Plot elements seemed to be thrown in out of left field every once in a while, the monster was there to look cool but there wasn’t much explanation of it past that, and the resolution felt a little quick and rushed. I’m curious to see how the series will work as an ongoing title, how Dorkin will develop the characters and whether he’ll try to tell stories stretching longer than an issue. Because while I think there’s potential here, I’m basing that judgment more on what’s come before from Dorkin and Thompson with these characters than what’s on display here.

QUICK RECOMMENDATIONS – I’ve often stated in the past how impressed I’ve been by the “Atomic Robo” series, so I won’t dwell on it much more here. I’ll just point out that this week’s issue concludes the current story arc dealing with a horrible monster existing outside our understanding of space and time, and I’ll urge you to take advantage of the fact that due to your presumed existence as a being experiencing time on a linear basis, moving forward, this week marks the first opportunity for you to pick up “Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time” #5 and you should take advantage of that. Also out this week is Grant Morrison’s “Batman and Robin” #4 with new artist Philip Tan. It’s a great read that introduces two opponents who look to be well-matched to the book’s heroes, so pick that up as well.

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