There are dozens of comic books published every week. And every one of them has a creative team trying to put out their best work and find an audience. Some of it is where you’d expect it, and I’m happy to help sort those out. But I’m even happier when it starts showing up in the unexpected places, and a book that’s not a mainstream superhero comic starts delivering the goods on a consistent basis. There’s no doubt about it, the most under-the-radar gem I’ve been touting is….
Life With Archie #31
I first started buying this book because I was hearing the media buzz about introducing Kevin Keller, a major out gay character. And I was intrigued at how that’d be integrated into something that, while I had fond childhood memories of, I thought of as a fluff comic. The answer is: This is as far from a fluff comic as you can get.
“Who let the real world in, huh?” — Jughead Jones. And that’s exactly what this is – the real world, let into Archie’s haven of Riverdale. It’s realistic drama, with as strong characterization as you’re going to find in comics.
In the first storyline, the villanous Fred Mirth has managed to, well, act like a real life villain. Which means that he fled town with a ton of money, and caused the collapse of the local industry and much of Riverdale is out of a job. Veronica is facing a major trumped-up legal problem, and while she blusters around about it and hires a top notch lawyer, there’s a scene with her and Archie where she shows real vulnerability, that you can’t help but feel for her.
The second storyline is operating on a smaller scale for now, but still with plenty of emotional punch. You have things like Jellybean, Jughead’s little sister. She just turned in her sleazebag boyfriend for running a local burglary ring and trying to get her to help rob Jughead’s Choklit Shoppe. And everyone treats her like a hero. Most stories would end it there, but then you see her in the back crying, and Midge tries to comfort her. Despite doing the “right thing”, Jellybean still feels like both a fool for liking the jerk in the first place, and a rat for betraying him. This is just fantastic writing. Plus, Betty’s becoming a workaholic, which is driving Archie mad, and it’s clear that he’s about to have a serious test of his fidelity to his absentee wife.
Don’t miss this one just because it’s set in Riverdale. It’s Strangers in Paradise level work going on, in a very unexpected locale.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic #9
Slightly less off the beaten path, but still a long way from the mainstream, is this little gem. Everyone has heard of the new MLP phenomenon, usually in reaction to the surprising arrival of the Brony, the adult male pony fan. It’s maybe a little weird, sure, but it’s actually a well written show, and everyone should be free to love what they love. Anyway, for fans of the show, or merely the pony-curious, this title (not necessarily the other titles they’re putting out) is a great read in the right spirit, and worth checking out.
This issue focuses on the laconic workhorse of the Apple family, Big Mac. The plot is rather simple – he needs nails to do some minor farm repairs, but to get them, he has to navigate the fair being put on for the Summer Wrap-Up Holiday. (Kind of a pony labor day.)
We’re treated to a veritable plethora of background gags, ranging from Family Circus to Peanuts to Arrested Development. And he encounters quite a few of the more colorful denizens of Ponyville from the show – The Great and Powerful Trixie, Nightmare Moon, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Zacora, as well as background characters like that Gym Maniac pony, the cake family, and even a panel with Doctor Whooves talking to Derpy.
All in all, it’s a fun trip through a very lively Ponyville, and fans of the show will feel right at home here.
Batman Annual #2
This story reminded me a lot of the 90s Animated Series, which is to me (and a lot of people) the definitive Batman. The story is mostly told through the perspective of a new orderly at Arkham Asylum, full of hope and vision and idealism. There, he meets The Anchoress, the oldest resident, dating back to the early days when it was more of a sanctuary from the world and less of a prison.
Batman is there, testing (and largely thwarting) the new security, and recommending upgrades. It’s a sensible and smart thing for Batman to be doing, actually. One tries not to think too hard on this, though; if the interesting inmates like the Riddler or the Joker don’t keep getting out, there’s a lot of good stories that you can’t write any more. Best to just accept this as genre-necessary.
What makes this particular story work, though, is that we have a new villain with an interesting backstory, and unusual motivation. (She may not be brand new, but if not, she’s very obscure, and the reader is well introduced to her.) She basically misses the way Arkham used to be, and (rather correctly) blames Batman for turning it into a horrible prison for horrible people. That’s what makes a good Batman story work – the villain has some sort of motivation, and is sympathetic in a way, but ultimately has too flawed a worldview for the Batman to not step between them and the world.
And of course that’s what happens, but it’s a well written, self-contained story, and a good issue to sample if you’re thinking about seeing if Scott Snyder’s take on Batman is for you.