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supreme blue rose SUPREME: BLUE ROSE (Image Comics)

The 1990s saw a rash of metafictional superhero comics by British writers – Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo and Animal Man, Alan Moore’s Promethea, and Moore’s original run on the Rob Liefeld character Supreme. Supreme: Blue Rose is Warren Ellis’ late contribution to the genre – the constant revisions and reboots of the modern superhero given a typically Ellis-ian science-fiction gloss. Themes from Ellis’ short-lived newuniversal project bubble up here too. For all the familiar – even mildly nostalgic – postmodernist and hard science trimmings, this is in places a very contemporary comic: protagonist Diana Dane is a former journalist turned freelancer, constantly having to ask herself what it means to live your best life in a disrupted, unstable world, even before those terms acquire more sinister meanings.

Even if the thought of another Warren Ellis comic about m-branes leaves you cold, Blue Rose is worth reading for his collaborator: Tula Lotay’s languid figurework makes for a beguiling, attractive comic. But it’s her expressionist approach to colouring and design that makes Blue Rose so spectacular – layered tendrils of colour and type overlaid onto the art to fully realise the dreamlike, provisional world the story exists in. The story in Blue Rose is one of sufficiently advanced science: Lotay’s art is what makes it indistinguishable from magic. (5 stars)

ALEX + ADA Vol.1 (Image Comics)

Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn tell the story of Ada, an android granted sentience by her human owner, Alex. The world of Alex + Ada is a deliberately bland one – most problems are solved for our well-off protagonist, and if they aren’t, then advanced AI, seamlessly integrated into the skin of everyday life, can help. This creates a kind of comics-style flat affect, low on action, but very beguiling. I can’t think of a more patient Image comic, or one whose near future feels quite so near.

Alex’s disaffection with the world is mysterious even to himself, and he’s not a particularly articulate guy, so we’re mostly meant to infer his reasons for the choices he makes. Ada is inarticulate too, but not by choice: her full consciousness and sentience is subject to a block. This is a comic about tech and progress and how society deals with those things, but it’s not really a comic yet about the boundary between robot and human (a fairly tired subject). Instead the question it’s directly asking men like Alex – which make up a fair chunk of the readership, this being comics – is: what does it mean to treat others as human? What privileges might that mean surrendering? This first volume stops just where those questions begin to become acute, but the set-up is skilful and charming enough that I’m very keen to see where Vaughn and Luna go next. (4.5 stars)

C.O.W.L. Vol.1: Principles Of Power (Image Comics)

I was easily sold on the idea of this comic – a Superhero Union – without really thinking too much about what sort of stories I either expected, or wanted to read, about said organisation. As it turns out, C.O.W.L. is a comic about sixties Chicago politics with the odd bit of powered action mixed in. The vibe of it is very late-80s: not Watchmen, exactly, but certainly post-Watchmen – that point in superhero comics evolution where the colours were grey and the linework was scratchy and the problems were intractable and ‘realism’ was king.

None of those ingredients need be a problem, but this particular mix isn’t working too well for me. C.O.W.L. is a dour comic, but every individual piece making up its dourness feels like a character I’ve seen before – ruthless bosses, corrupt politicians, underestimated women, guys with points to prove. It’s not that there’s nobody to ‘root for’ – I’d be fine with that – it’s that nobody here feels like they’re going to do anything unexpected. The art, by Rob Reis, goes for a Sienkiewicz-esque expressionism – it’s effective at conveying mood and a sense of place, but action sequences are often awkward and unclear. A disappointment, ultimately. (2 stars)

BLACK SCIENCE Vol.2: Welcome, Nowhere (Image Comics)

I’m not sure that anything in Black Science has yet topped Matteo Scalera’s amazing double-page spread of a lightning-ravaged world of giant turtles in the first issue. It’s the kind of image that promises pulp wildness ahead, and Scalera does his best to keep up his end of the bargain on a near-monthly basis. The tighter focus of this second volume, though – largely confined to a single universe – keeps Scalera more grounded than I’d hoped, though chariot races and giant war hippos are an excellent use of his talents. He’s unusual, too, in that he can handle up-close action storytelling as well as the gorgeous painted widescreen stuff. The one problem in this volume is that the choice of antagonist – telepathic death millipedes – doesn’t lend itself to smooth storytelling: scenes between people work fine, but Scalera has hard work conveying emotion or action beats when the millipedes are on-panel.

Rick Remender’s storyline, meanwhile, moves dead-or-is-he protagonist Grant McKay to the side to focus on first the unscrupulous Kadir, and then McKay’s kids. Remender is an acquired taste – psychological self-flagellation on top of fast-paced action is his signature style, and if you’ve become tired of it in his other work then Black Science is not for you. But he has more to work with here than Volume 1’s bad dad angst – Kadir knows his attempts to assume the heroic role are barely credible and probably doomed, and the McKay kids’ conflicting personalities take them out of the standard peril magnet role. By the end, difficult second volume syndrome has been just about avoided, and a wider series premise at least partially unveiled. (3.5 stars)

SHUTTER, Vol.1 (Image Comics)

Shutter’s lightly twisted picture-book universe is never less than pretty: dinosaurs, ghouls, talking beasts, and grim’n’gritty Richard Scarry characters turned hitmen romp across its pages, the tone shifting unnervingly from playful to brutal. It’s not the kind of comic that risks boring its artist, and sure enough Leila Del Luca’s work has a fluidity and joy that brings to mind the looser, scrappier end of the European adventure comics that are apparently Shutter’s inspiration.

But that “apparently” is something of a problem. I had to go back to Joe Keatinge’s interviews to get any read on what Shutter wants to do, or be like. A 21st century take on fantastic adventure? Marvellous idea! But Keating immediately bogs his likeable lead down in a family saga and throws on a deadweight of soul-searching about whether she should even BE adventuring. So we have a gleefully chaotic, beautifully realised, tonally intriguing world and a plot which plays all that down in favour of route one angst. Frustrating. (3 stars)