Beta Ray Bill (#1 – 5) – Daniel Warren Johnson

5 out of 5

Daniel Warren Johnson’s art is no joke. We know that. From early on he’s been a force, never lacking in ability to hit character moments or moments of the grandest scale, and leveraging influences in a way that’s never felt like “oh, he looks like so-and-so;” DWJ’s art looks exactly like his own. Everything has been evolving in a damningly linear way: the way lettering works with his art (especially when using his own added sound effects); the way common coloring partner Mike Spicer works to bring out all the sturm and drang and yet not underserve the subtle beats…

And Johnson’s storytelling – part of this whole words and art shtick, and certainly important when you’re doing them both – has also been improving at lightspeed. I rather admire that the creator has stuck to very accessible and universal themes – loss, our desire for purpose – and hasn’t been trying to spin his takes on them like they’re something mind-blowing, but also makes them feel personal and rooted to the story by bringing the themes out through characters. His stories are organic, even when they feature metal playing falcon gods. A desire to, in my eyes, push himself outside of a comfort zone with each release has meant some stumbles: some aspects of the story may get away from him; some art cues may not fully connect; perhaps the emotional pieces aren’t quite synched to what ends up being the thrust of the tale. But those stumbles are also parts of the work, in a way; they are honest. Meaning, although DWJ topped himself with Dead Earth, it’s still absolutely worth the time to go back and reread Extremity, or Space Mullet.

Now, Dead Earth DC, and here we are at Marvel, with Beta Ray Bill. But it’s not just a swap of houses: Johnsons has anted up again: his Wonder Woman tale was an epic; it required its prestige sizing to tell its tale. With BRB, DWJ has proven that he can compress that same level of impact to a non-epic – he can hit those heavy emotions, with excellent character work, great humor, and 22-page battle action splash page requirements, in a regular ol’ 5-issue mini-series. This could just be another thing on the shelf – regular price, a funky cover you pick up and flip through, and it blows your freakin’ mind.

Bill: he’s got a weird horse head. Maybe sometimes he wishes he didn’t. He was created to be the hero of his people, but rather bungled that – through no fault of his own, really, but still. He’s made nice with Thor and has been installed as the protector of Asgard, but maybe that Norse prettyboy also destroyed his weapon, Stormbreaker, which allowed him to revert back to his more humanoid shape, so things are a little strained there. All things that can be sidestepped by leaving Asgard, and finding himself a new weapon with some similar powers.

And so Johnson gives us a great excuse for Bill to go on a road trip, with his mechanoid friend / battleship Skuttlebutt, the made-flesh spirit of Skurge, and the troll Pip. The story doesn’t force any of this: somehow we arrive wholly naturally at this odd-quadruple team up, just as it flows naturally to finding Odin – creator of Stormbreaker – at a bar, and an epic freaking bar fight. From there…? Would be spoiling the adventure. But what’s important is that this doesn’t become a perpetual fetch quest: we are given our goal, and it is huge, and it is not a dodge. Each issue builds and builds with cliffhangers and important notes that underline two epic beats in the concluding issue: a massive, all-hands-on battle, in which not a character is superfluous, and an amazing final few pages which bring so many of the themes Johnson has worked on in his various comics to a resounding head – it’s a beautifully simple beat, and a haunting one, for a story about a dude with a kind of silly name and who started the series out by pouting and then drinkin’ brew with Odin.

This book is perfect.