Call it the “Mad Men” effect: Some of the best writers in comics are setting series in America’s past. If you want to get your historical fiction on, here are some of the more notable titles:

REBELS (Dark Horse)

One of the most impressive new series is set during and after the Revolutionary War. It’s written by Brian Wood (“DMZ”), who showed his historical chops on the Viking series “Northlanders” for DC/Vertigo.

“Rebels” follows Seth Abbott and Ezekiel Learned, two New Englanders recruited by Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys in 1776 to fight the British. Wood spends some time on characterization of these two and Seth’s young, pregnant wife, Mercy, but doesn’t on the war itself: The Revolution is over by issue #5!

I’m rather impressed by that. Some writers would milk the war forever, establishing it as the dramatic crux of the series. Even more amazingly, the focus going forward is domestic. “Rebels” #6 depicts Seth’s return after seven years at war, and it’s hardly a happy homecoming. The veteran immediately has trouble re-adjusting to civilian life, meets his son for the first time and learns how his wife has had to build a life without him. And she’s not happy about it.

“You and me? We’re not married,” Mercy tells Seth. “I’m not talking about in the eyes of the church, or the law. I’m talking about the heart. You have to start all over. You have to court me again. And right now, Seth Abbott, I’m not feeling very accommodating.”

This is astonishing for comics. In this entire issue no one is shot, no one is punched, no one raises a hand or voice. There is a major death, but off-panel. George Washington and Benedict Arnold pass through in early issues, but they are not the stars. Instead, we watch two adults wrestle with truly adult problems.

Wood is doing some genuinely mature work here. No trade paperbacks are available yet, but “Rebels” is available in digital form. Rated four Redcoats (out of four).

SATELLITE SAM (Image Comics)

Another book labeled “mature” — in both senses of the word — is set in the 1950s, during the Golden Age of Television. The premise here is that Carlyle White, the star of the kids’ series “Satellite Sam” (think “Space Patrol”) dies under mysterious circumstances, and when his alcoholic son Michael picks up the role, he discovers that his father had a secret life — and may have been murdered.

That secret life, of course, involves sex. Lots and lots of it, with lots of women, all of whom were photographed but not named. Now Michael must sober up long enough to track down each of these floozies and find out what they know about his father’s death, while all of the intrigue, closeted gays, ambition, egos and outright absurdity of show business swirls about him. Plus, there’s lots of drinking, and lots of smoking. And, oh, yes, lots of sex.

But it’s not gratuitous. “Satellite Sam” is by two guys who are very good at comics both PG and R. Writer Matt Fraction has had acclaimed runs on many a superhero title, and also writes a farce titled “Sex Criminals.” Artist Howard Chaykin has had an award-studded career going back to the 1970s, and is also the writer/artist of such books as “Black Kiss,” which was banned in the UK.

So “Satellite Sam,” unlike the fictional TV show, is definitely not for the kiddies. It’s collected in three volumes, and rated three Polaroids.

THE FADE OUT (Image Comics)

Did I mention drinking, smoking and sex? Welcome to Hollywood, circa 1948, and another murder mystery. Only this story’s a crime noir, with nary a laugh to be found.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Charlie Parish, an alcoholic writer, wakes up in a Hollywood bungalow after a blackout with a raging hangover and a dead girl on the bed. Yes, it’s the old “Who killed the starlet?” routine.

But who cares? In the hands of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, “The Fade Out” might as well be the first time you’ve seen this set-up. These guys are the best noir team in the business, having brought us such gems as “Criminal” and “Fatale.”

Meanwhile, back at the bungalow ….

Our writer is no hero, and amscrays before anyone knows he was ever there (he hopes). Over time his conscience begins to nag him as to who killed the poor girl, a rising starlet named Valeria Sommers. But before he can talk himself into doing anything about it, studio security — which arranged for the death to be ruled a suicide — begins to suspect there are people like Charlie who know too much. And they are not very nice people to have sniffing on your trail. Especially since our writer has secrets of his own.

This is a taut, dark thriller that is easily rated three packs of Winstons and a bottle of scotch.

LADY KILLER (Dark Horse)

At last we come to the “Mad Men” era, and perfect housewife Josie Schuller. She lives in a perfect suburban house, raising two perfect little girls while hubbie is out at his job, which is presumably perfect. Oh, one more thing: Josie is a stone-cold assassin.

This blackest of comedies juxtaposes the wholesome imagery of a June Cleaver with the violence, murder and paranoia of a Hitchcock thriller. That’s a lot of fun, but the real star is artist Joelle Jones, who brings to life the clean lines and space-age motifs of early 1960s advertising, architecture, interior design and clothing.

“Lady Killer” is available in trade paperback, and is rated three Sputniks.


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©2015 Andrew A. Smith

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