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SYFY WIRE Comics Wire

Sweet Tooth returns! Plus Death Metal and Empyre in this week's hot reads

By Matthew Jackson
Sweet Tooth: The Return cover

Welcome to Comics Wire, SYFY WIRE's weekly comics column that gets at the pulse of what's going on in comics right now. We've got what you need to know about huge crossovers, real-life issues facing the industry, cool first looks, the week's hot new comics, and everything in between.

It's been a somewhat dark week in the comics world, the kind you hope you never see. Layoffs rocked DC Comics, one of the largest publishers in the industry, and as a result, various prominent editors and other staffers are now no longer contributing to one of the great pop culture shared universes. These are not the first layoffs in comics in the age of COVID-19, but they certainly are the most substantial to date, and we have yet to feel the full force of their ripple effects.

For now, though, it's worth noting that our thoughts are with everyone affected, because without them comics wouldn't be what they are. We talk a lot in this column, deservedly so, about the top-line creators who make the books we love, but those books don't happen without talented, enthusiastic voices working in other roles — editors, assistants, designers, marketers, and so many more. We wish those talented people who got bad news this week the best.

Now, on to happier news.

Jeff Lemire's post-apocalyptic series Sweet Tooth was one of the most celebrated books to come out of Vertigo Comics in the 21st century, and while the Vertigo imprint may be gone now, the series remains an important part of its legacy. It's been seven years since Sweet Tooth's finale, and the book continues to draw new readers into its strange world even as it prepares to make the leap to the screen with a new Netflix series. Before that happens, though, Sweet Tooth is returning to the comics page. 

Sweet Tooth: The Return cover

DC Comics announced on Wednesday that Lemire and colorist José Villarubia have reunited for Sweet Tooth: The Return, a new six-issue miniseries that will arrive this fall on DC's Black Label imprint. Described as a "re-imagining" rather than a "rehash" of the original series, The Return promises to feature many of the elements that made readers fall in love with the original series in a new way. Here's DC's tease for the story:

"Once upon a time there was a little boy named Gus. He had antlers and lived with his father in a little cabin in the woods. Then his father died, and the big man with cold eyes took Gus away. Gus went on many great adventures, found friends, love, happiness, family, and acceptance. Now, years later… it begins again. A young boy with antlers and deer-like feature wakes in a bizarre and completely foreign world where the last humans struggle to survive. They tell the boy he is special, he is chosen, and that he alone can lead them back to a world dominated by the oppressive Hybrids."

So, if you've been planning a big Sweet Tooth re-read, or you've been waiting to get into the series for the first time, you've got a few months to prepare for the next chapter. Sweet Tooth: The Return launches its first issue on Nov. 3. 

As the industry sadly reminds us all too often, comics can be an unforgiving business, particularly if you're a freelancer who's simultaneously responsible for beloved creations and also working in a way that leaves you without certain financial safety nets. That's why The Hero Initiative, a non-profit that helps creators through financial hardships, remains a vital part of the comics community. From grants to counseling to efforts to help find work, it's a tremendous organization that's given more than $1 million in aid to creators over the years, and continues to do invaluable work while also providing supporters with lots of fun opportunities to interact with their favorite creators. This week, The Hero Initiative launched yet another example of that. 

On Tuesday, the organization unveiled the results of "The Batman 100 Project," a sketch cover fundraiser that presents an opportunity for fans to bid on some incredible art from up-and-coming talents and legends of the industry alike. The project began with Batman #75, and the blank sketch variant covers DC Comics released when that issue came out last year. The Hero Initiative got its hands on many of those variants, and asked more than 100 comic book artists to sketch their own Batman interpretations on them. The result is a treasure trove of art that will be auctioned off next month to benefit the Initiative, and will eventually be collected into a book.

You can browse the full gallery of Batman 100 Project submissions over on the Hero Initiative's website. For now, though, here's a peek at my personal favorite from the offerings: a piece by the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez Batman 100 Project

The auction for the art will be held Sept. 13-19 at Heritage Auctions, and the book collecting the covers is set to arrive in November. If you've got collecting money lying around, and you want to help out a great cause, get ready.

Last fall, acclaimed country artist Sturgill Simpson announced he would move into the world of comics for the first time with Sound and Fury, a prequel graphic novel set in the same world as his 2019 album and its companion anime film of the same name. Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a lone vigilante sets out for revenge, the graphic novel was set to combine Simpson's talents with those of Thor and Avengers writer Jason Aaron. Now the graphic novel has a release date and preview art for what Aaron described on his blog as "one pretty big shotgun blast of a book."

"The upcoming Sound and Fury graphic novel from Z2 Comics, based on the music of one of my favorite modern country artists, Sturgill Simpson, and the post-apocalyptic anime made in conjunction with his most recent album, is without a doubt one of the wildest, most bats***-crazy things I've ever written," Aaron wrote. "Strap in for one high-f***ing-octane ride with this one."

A collaboration between Simpson, Aaron, writer Ryan Cady, and artists Takashi Okazaki, Vasilis Lolos, Rosi Kampe, Rufus Dayglo, and Deathburger, Sound and Fury arrives this November to melt your face, and is available for pre-order now. To check out a full preview of the series, head over to Pitchfork.

Seven Secrets cover

Now it's time for a look at the new comics that got me excited this week, beginning with the debuts of two exciting series. 

Seven Secrets #1: Sometimes you come to the end of an issue of comics and you try to turn a page that isn't there. Then you flip back to the page before, and try to turn that last page again, hoping to God you just made a mistake and you actually get to keep reading. Single issues of comics are designed to leave you wanting more, and some issues are able to wield that feeling like a magic spell. Seven Secrets #1, from writer Tom Taylor and artist Daniele Di Nicuolo, is one of those issues. 

The series catapults us from the very first page into a world of action and intrigue, secrets and schemes, a world where an ancient order guards seven of the greatest secrets in all of human civilization, until someone who knows too much decides to take them apart piece by piece. This is a thrilling, breathless, edge-of-your-seat first issue of comics propelled by Di Nicuolo's slick widescreen art that draws your eye first across the page, then down through often striking panel design, in a way that makes the issue absolutely fly. Taylor's story is equally propulsive, but adds a layer of heart running through the whole piece that's underlined by Di Nicuolo's incredibly effective character expressions. The result is a conspiracy thriller with a layer of real humanity laced in from the start, and I can't wait to see where Issue #2 goes.

Big Girls #1: I've written many, many times about how much I love a great high-concept idea, but even when the concept is an instant hook, the execution is key. I've seen far too many stories go off the rails in the beginning because their creators just can't help but completely overexplain the premise and forget to throw some actual story in there. So when I find a first issue that manages to avoid those pitfalls, I'm especially intrigued. Big Girls, from writer/artist Jason Howard, manages to both kick things off with a fantastic hook and deliver a compelling first issue that doesn't give into a lot of high-concept pitfalls.

In the world of Big Girls, a disastrous event in the past has led to a grave threat in the present, namely that men have the ability to grow to massive size and turn into city-destroying monsters. To combat this, world leaders have Big Girls, giant women who protect humanity from these monster men one kaiju battle at a time. It's into this world that Howard drops us to meet Ember, a Big Girl who's still learning the harder parts of the job, and who finds that saving the world is not always as rewarding as she'd like it to be.

What's perhaps most encouraging and rewarding about this debut issue is the way in which Howard displays such a complete command of the world he's built. His art is, unsurprisingly, gorgeous and gripping, but his script might actually outshine it. There are procedural elements here, but there's also a real emotional center to the piece, and together with the even-handed sense of worldbuilding running through the issue the whole thing projects real storytelling confidence. It feels like we're in fantastic hands from the very first page, and that means that when Howard starts to open things up and really lay into the monster-fighting, we're both along for the ride and very excited to be there. I can't say enough about how well crafted this debut is.

Empyre #5: The fourth issue of Marvel's Empyre event left things in a very interesting place, dropping a major bombshell on the last page and setting the stage for what might end up being the most important issue of the series so far, even more than the stage-setting bombast of Issue #1. With that in mind, I wanted to return to Empyre this week to check in on an event that I thought showed tremendous promise out of the gate, and I wasn't disappointed. 

After the reveal at the end of #4 that Hulkling and Wiccan were secretly married right before Teddy went off to be a space emperor, this issue picks up as Billy enters the fray to find out what's gone wrong with his new husband. Hulkling seems determined to burn the galaxy down around him, even as the heroes of Earth fight tooth and nail to stop the Cotati invasion from spilling past the point of no return, and it might be down to Wiccan to stop him. 

What follows this setup is very much the Empire Strikes Back issue of this event, the one where everything seems to be stacking up against our heroes at once even as certain characters make crucial headway in getting to the heart of the problem. Valerio Schiti is still absolutely crushing art duties on Empyre, delivering some of the most emotive character work I've ever seen in a crossover comic, and writers Al Ewing and Dan Slott seem determined not to take their feet off the gas pedal until the very last page. A lot of event books use the penultimate issue as the actual conclusion, while the final issue is more of an epilogue. That's very much not happening here, and Empyre #5 is proof that the wild ride is far from over, even with just one issue left.

Dark Nights: Death Metal #3I freely admit that I was a sucker for Dark Nights: Death Metal from the moment the book was announced, but even I was always wondering if there was a point where this story would head into such wild territory that I could no longer follow. Part of the package you opt into when you buy a ticket to the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo Superhero-Metal-Horror-Action-Face-Melter Show is the sense that too much is never enough, and that when you give these guys the keys to the garage with all your coolest toys in it they are absolutely going to smash every last one of them into something by the end. I love the unrestrained joy of a book like that, but there's still a cynical part of me that keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment when I'll go, "Oh come on, guys."

I am pleased to report that, as of Death Metal #3, that has very much not happened. 

The trick to making something like Death Metal work — other than, of course, having two masters of their craft working at the top of their respective games — is, I think, the sense that none of the bombast works without a root of earnestness sprouting beneath each wild creation. This issue finds Wonder Woman, Batman, and the gang heading to New Apokolips in an effort to free Superman and, by extension, the other heroes imprisoned by the Batman Who Laughs' regime. Along the way we meet everyone from the absolutely insane new villain known as the Robin King to a Dark Multiverse Batman based on Darkseid.

Oh, and also, there's a whole scene in this issue that's a direct homage to Final Crisis which somehow manages to be even crazier than the original moment it's inspired by. It's a lot, just as the previous two issues were, and just as Metal was before that, but it's somehow all rooted in a tremendous sense of hope and joy that really manifests on the page by the end of the issue. There's a sense in this event that, if you're going to go absolutely over the top with the darkness, then you also have to go absolutely over the top with the light. It's that juxtaposition, the sense that our hope can be as big and brash as our despair, that makes Death Metal keep ripping along.

Billionaire Island #4: There's a moment in Billionaire Island, the wild sci-fi satire from writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh, when one of the book's heroes looks at one of his captors and basically begs him to acknowledge that the scenario they're all in is absolutely insane. It's a moment that comes in the middle of an absolutely bonkers comic that features everything from a floating island to a TV network exclusive to billionaires to a president who looks suspiciously like Kid Rock, but it's also something that any one of us could say in reaction to just about anything that's happened so far in 2020. It's that awareness, that sense of verisimilitude lurking amid the bizarre, that makes Billionaire Island one of the most potent satirical books on the stands right now.

The series follows a group of people trapped on the titular island — a floating superstructure that serves as a combination of luxury habitat, tax shelter, and playground for the richest people left in a world that's rapidly crumbling — as they try to both hold onto their sanity and undo the wildly unfair power structures that led to such a place existing in the first place. Along the way, as they try to expose the truth of the billionaire class, they must contend with everything from drones prepared to drag them out to see to an uber-wealthy dog that makes billion-dollar decisions based on which food bowl he picks.

It's as a wild as it sounds, and Pugh's witty and precise art sells every bit of it, but what really makes Billionaire Island work is that sense that we're all very aware of just how close to this particular tipping point we are. Russell and Pugh are walking a fine line between real and surreal here, and that gives the whole book an impish sense of delight. It's just realistic enough to hook us, and just strange enough to let us enjoy it issue after issue.

And that's it for Comics Wire this week. Until next time, remember what John Custer told his son Jesse in the pages of Preacher:

"You gotta be one of the good guys, son: 'Cause there's way too many of the bad."