The Comic Book Club: Xombi and Fear Itself: Book of the Skull

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Evan Narcisse, Graeme McMillan and Douglas Wolk talk about Xombi #1 and the Fear Itself: Book of the Skull one-shot.

DOUGLAS: The first rule of superhero comics is: Everything always comes back. No, seriously, everything. Always. Without exception. Xombi was my favorite of the original Milestone line, in the mid-’90s: a kind of supernatural techno-thriller with a wicked sense of humor and a protagonist who was basically a superhero but had no interest in any of that costume/codename stuff. Since the original series ended with issue #21, writer John Rozum has popped up in a lot of unlikely places–I believe he was the main writer on Scooby-Doo‘s comic book for a couple of years–and the character’s appeared maybe twice. I’d have put Xombi‘s chances of getting revived as a series somewhere between, I don’t know, Gross Point and Jemm, Son of Saturn.

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Night Animals and Batman Inc.)

So it’s a real surprise that Xombi has ended up being the first Milestone series to be revived as an ongoing DC Universe title (I don’t think Static Shock counts), more of a surprise that Rozum’s writing it, and an outright shock that it’s being drawn by Frazer Irving–one of the most interesting, distinctive artists working in mainstream comics right now (his three-issue run on Batman & Robin last year was extraordinary). It’s also strange that DC’s been doing relatively little to promote it; its presentation seems weirdly tossed-off, and the fact that Irving’s first name is misspelled on the front cover doesn’t help. (On the other hand, there was also a glaring typo on the cover of the Return of Bruce Wayne hardcover. Maybe DC just needs a cover copy editor.)

According to this interview with Rozum, the new launch issue actually takes place shortly before the end of the original series–hence the reference to our protagonist David Kim having become a “xombi” about two months ago. But I like pretending that the previous series never actually appeared: Rozum simply throws us into Kim’s life with a couple of lines of expository dialogue, and off we go to the world of super-powered nuns. Which: yes. This is a series with super-powered nuns in it: an all-seeing one called Nun of the Above and a shrinking one called Nun the Less. (Plus another one who says her identity is “none of your business.” Nice.) And attacking snow angels composed of negative space. That kind of thing.

As with almost everything Irving draws, though, this is ultimately his show. Irving’s worked up his “one dominant color per scene” style on the last few projects he’s done, and here it works beautifully. So do his little details (the mouths on the screaming coins in the opening scene), and his sense of lighting (the glow around Catholic Girl!), and his dramatic staging of a story that really doesn’t involve all that much in the way of conventional spectacle. Absolutely gorgeous.

EVAN: So, when Milestone Media launched their comic line, I enthused about it to friends of every color and creed. More than once, I heard, “Well, of course, you like them. You’re black and they’re for you.” Then, I handed them Xombi. And people came to see the light: Milestone rocked because the comics were good before they were anything else.

(More on TIME.com: The End of an Era? Memories of Milestone Comics)

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the original Xombi run. Bits and pieces–that perfectly horrific origin, Catholic Girl and Nun of the Above, Manuel Dexterity–remain crystal clear but, by and large, I can’t quote it chapter and verse. So, it’s a joy to rediscover John Rozum’s particular brand of weird. You can point to the high chieftains of the British School of Weird (Morrison, Gaiman, Eliis and, of course, Moore) and see similarities. But there’s always been a particular American-ness to Rozum’s ideas. They’re not strongly derived from Lovecraftian legacy, but feel more like repurposed, remixed folklore. So you get papier-mache puppet demons, talking coins and yes, those awesome super-powered nuns. It’s everyday weirdness, not arch or stiff but still dangerous.

Rozum’s one of those talents who always strikes me of deserving wider acclaim. I’d throw him in there with Tom Peyer, Stuart Moore and Tony Bedard, guys who’ve executed short, brilliant runs on comics that became cult favorites. (Man, that Peyer/Morales Hourman was a thing of beauty.) Despite the lack of promotion that you’ve noted, Douglas, I really hope buzz builds around Xombi. And here’s hoping that we get trades of the original Xombi run and Rozum’s excellent Midnight, Mass miniseries. A guy can dream, right?

GRAEME: There’s a lot of Morrison here, specifically his Doom Patrol – those first three pages could have come from one of his DP issues, if only they’d had such beautiful art. But I agree that there’s also a sense of Americanness, for want of a better way of putting it, in Rozum’s writing. In all the things he’s written – Scooby-Doo, X-Files comics, the wonderful Vertigo series Midnight, Mass – there’s been a connective thread of the “other,” but Xombi has always been the place where I think it’s been handled with the most imagination and wonder, if only because (Kim aside) no one really treats it with any wonder within the story. There’s a matter-of-factness that really works here, which I love. Tonally, it’s surprising how well this fits in with the original series, which I’ll admit to loving when it came out – I remember Milestone sending me a copy because I’d had a letter published in Books of Magic, and they were like “You might like this,” and being flattered and surprised by how much I loved it – with only a little flutter for first issue nerves. (Am I the only one who thinks it feels a little rushed?) It may be too esoteric for a mainstream audience, but I’ll enjoy every issue before it gets canceled.

(And, for the record: I agree with everything Douglas says about the art. Irving is a spectacular talent, and this seems like a book where his style fits perfectly. I hope he stays around for the duration.)

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