1. Red Robin. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed this comic over the past year, despite the persistent feeling that I was being plagiarized (highly unlikely, but even so). For those who don’t follow the Bat-verse, the gods of DC Comics killed off Batman a little over a year ago, and his family has been making do without him ever since. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, has assumed the mantle of Batman, and Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul, has taken over as Robin despite his rather homicidal view of crime-fighting. This leaves Tim Drake, the kid who’s run around as Robin for the last 20 years of comics, somewhat at loose ends … until he somehow becomes convinced that Batman is not dead, and that he, Tim, has to find him. The search takes him all over the world and, after the rest of the Bat-family decides Tim is crazy and/or hip-deep in denial, Tim finds that the only person who believes him is Batman’s old enemy and Damian’s grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul. Throw in two rival assassin-cults, a nice girl from Gotham sent to bring Tim home, and the combination of Tim’s dry wit (“Ra’s al Ghul is my new Alfred. Butler to the damned.”) and his genuine grief at losing half the people he loves, and you have a neat little international thriller with a lot of heart to it. I didn’t even care whether Tim was right, wrong, or crazy; writer Christ Yost made me care about Tim, pure and simple. Start with the first collection, “The Grail.” I was so tired of Robin that I didn’t even bother to pick up this series on the shelf at first … but I went back and bought the trade because it was just that good. And if this sounds a bit like a certain other disgruntled sidekick searching the world for his missing mentor and falling in with bad company … well, that’s between you, me, and the phone booth. Rated PG-13 for lots and lots of violence, especially the part with the clown baby.
2. Black Widow. Marvel Comics’ femme fatale extraordinaire is in the spotlight right now because of her appearance in Iron Man 2, but Scarlett Johansson didn’t exactly do Natalia Romanova justice. For a glimpse of the perpetually conflicted superspy in her natural habitat, check out the recent limited series Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell. The premise there is that the mysterious “Icepick Protocol” is killing off Natalia’s old friends and lovers … and man, is there a trail of those … and saving their lives will require quick thinking, a willingness to get her hands dirty, and the courage to face a disturbing secret that finally makes her origin make a bit of sense. Mainstream comics do not have a good track record on female characters, perhaps because they’re overwhelmingly written by and for male fans, but Cornell turns the conventional sleep-with-anyone Black Widow on her head and cranks out a rip-roaring, occasionally heartbreaking adventure. If you like Deadly Origin, try picking up the new ongoing Black Widow series by Marjorie Liu. You won’t be sorry. Rated PG-13 for sex, violence, and, well, being the Black Widow.
3. Lions, Tigers, and Bears. Oh my! This is my all-ages offering this time around. The brainchild of Mike Bullock (The Phantom) and Jack Lawrence and published by Image Comics, LTB is a loving look at kids, stuffed animals, and the power of imagination. Young Joey is unhappy about moving to a new town until he discovers that his set of stuffed animals, the Night Pride, comes to life at night and protects him and other kids from extradimensional monsters called Beasties. It’s all fun and games until the Beasties threaten Courtney, heir to the toymaker who created the Night Pride and—yuck—a girl! Why someone hasn’t already adapted this intelligent, heartfelt romp into a Pixar cartoon is beyond me. Rated G, if you don’t spook too easily.
4. Captain Britain and MI:13. This series is the reason I picked up Black Widow--because I will now watch Paul Cornell (who has written for Doctor Who and other things beloved of nerds) write anything. This series launched during Marvel’s Secret Invasion storyline (shape-shifting aliens invade earth—yawn) and ended about a year later, but it was well worth the ride. Focusing on a team of British superheroes and a couple of ringers (the British-born, American-raised Blade the Vampire Hunter and the American-born Black Knight, a personal favorite of mine—long story) who fight off aliens and assorted mystical threats, the series offered a nice balance of action, humor, and unexpected twists. Watch for more-intelligent-than-usual vampires and an interesting little puzzle with the Black Knight’s sword. Also one of the most realistic, non-stereotypical Muslim superheroes in comics today … who also happens to be a hell of a character in her own right. And oh, yeah, someone making Blade get over himself. Start with the first trade, Secret Invasion, and move quickly to the second, Hell Comes to Birmingham. Rated PG-13 for stuff blowing up and a lot of Britishisms.
5. Nightschool. I’ve mentioned before that this English-original manga by Svetlana Chmakova (best known for the anime-con romantic comedy Dramacon) is my current favorite offering from the land of big, shiny eyes and improbable fashion choices. But of course, it’s the writing that draws me in. Set in a world where creatures of the night attend a specialized high school for things-that-go-bump and where “hunters” track down and kill those who go astray, Nightschool is the story of a homeschooled weirn (witch) who begins attending night school to search for her missing sister and finds herself tangled up in an ancient prophecy, some decent impending doom, and a vengeful crew of hunters who have a few secrets of their own. This all sounds pretty standard, but it’s the little touches that make it shine. Watch for ghostly, cookie-gobbling “astrals,” unexpected family ties, and a colorful and unorthodox magic teacher with the best library ever. Rated PG-13 for some violence, boo factor, and cookie overdose.
6. The Unwritten. This improbable head-trip of a comic (from the appropriately named Vertigo imprint) turns literary obsession into a hold-onto-your-soul thrill ride. Nominally about Tom Taylor, the adult son of a vanished author and the supposed inspiration for the author’s megahit novels about a familiar-sounding boy wizard, The Unwritten is actually about reading—and not in the treacly reading-opens-new-worlds way of afterschool specials. No, in The Unwritten reading is dangerous, as Tom discovers when he finds out some bits of Wilson Taylor’s world might not be made up … and he might not be his father’s son at all. His quest for answers (and to escape a murder charge) takes him from the Villa Diodati, where Frankenstein was composed, to the darkest parts of the lives of books. (Watch for Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Joseph Goebbels, and the most terrifying take on Beatrix Potter you’ll ever see.) As events in Tom’s life begin to resemble sinister mirrors of the life of the fictional Tommy Taylor, the plot thickens with the discovery of what seems to be the first new Tommy Taylor book in years. Is Tom’s father alive? And is Tom going to live long enough to find out what the hell is going on? The series is ongoing, so I have no answers, but the first volume, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, is the place to start… if you dare. Rated R for naughty language and dangerous ideas.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, remember—treat your books as you would your friends, and introduce them to all the cool people you know.