The GeeksverseFirst Impressions | Samurai Jack, Velvet, Multiple Warheads: Down Fall, Hinterkind, S.H.O.O.T. First, and more

First Impressions | Samurai Jack, Velvet, Multiple Warheads: Down Fall, Hinterkind, S.H.O.O.T. First, and more
Published on Thursday, October 31, 2013 by
In this month’s First Impressions, we check out Samurai Jack, Velvet, S.H.O.O.T. First, IMAGINE Agents, Multiple Warheads: Down Fall, Danger Girl: The Chase, Pretty Deadly, Hinterkind, Three, Rocket Girl, Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight, and more!

First Impressions is our (more-or-less) monthly look at first issues, one-shots, and “entry-point” comics. Unless otherwise indicated, all reviewed issues were digital copies provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers, publicists, or creative team personnel.

Samurai Jack #1 (of 5; IDW, $3.99)
  • SamJack_01-pr-001Story: Jim Zubkavich
  • Art: Andy Suriano
  • Cover: Andy Suriano
  • Publisher’s summary: Cartoon Network’s hit animated series is back at IDW! The legendary samurai known only as ‘Jack’ is stranded in a strange future ruled by the demonic wizard, Aku. His quest to return back to the past has tested him many times, but now the stakes are higher than ever. Can an ancient relic known as the Rope of Eons finally take him home? Writer Jim Zub (Skullkickers, Street Fighter) and artist Andy Suriano (Character Designer on the original Samurai Jack TV series) begin a new era of samurai adventure!

Zedric Dimalanta: Like many adult fans of animation, I loved how Dexter’s Laboratory-creator Genndy Tartakovsky approached the task of designing, animating, and directing the Emmy and Annie Award-winning Samurai Jack with the same, almost slavish, devotion to efficient visual storytelling that informed his most popular works up to that point in his career. In the show’s best episodes, there are no superfluous lines, antics, frames, or character design elements—everything that appears onscreen is there for a reason, and that reason, more often than not, is tied into both the streamlining of the animation process and the pursuit of storytelling clarity. At the risk of waxing hyperbolic, Samurai Jack, at its creative peak, was a distilled expression of a particular philosophy of animation, one that managed to be a popular television draw for children and grown-ups alike.

It was with some skepticism, then, that I approached Samurai Jack #1, even with the knowledge that Samurai Jack series character designer Andy Suriano is onboard as the miniseries’ artist and Skullkickers creator Jim Zubkavich—who has some experience working in animation on shows like ShiftyLook’s Bravoman and Decode Entertainment’s King—is handling the writing chores. How would the unique aesthetic of the Samurai Jack series, so perfectly tuned for ease in animation, translate to a more static medium like comics? How would the creators replicate the deliberate storytelling rhythm of the show, knowing that readers have as much say as they do in dictating the pacing in a more interactive medium like comics?

As it turns out, and as is perhaps best for the comic, Suriano and Zubkavich don’t resort to overtly trying to recreate the animation’s cinematic approach to storytelling in bringing Samurai Jack to print, eschewing the quirks commonly associated with so-called “decompressed comics.” There are what can be described as “widescreen” panels here and there, but on the whole, the comic is structured conventionally, encouraging a reading pace most readers will be accustomed to. There’s also a surprising but welcome sense of restraint to the writing and staging of scenes: In the issue’s centerpiece fight, it is only when two of his attackers get hit by ricocheting bullets from another assailant that Samurai Jack is stirred to aggressive action and not just self-defense.

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A creative team with a shaky grip on nuance or less confidence in their visual storytelling ability would have had Jack spouting a platitude about how sometimes one has to use violence to prevent more violence or some such Saturday morning cartoon cornball dialogue, but Zubkavich and Suriano wisely let the art do the talking. The concern in Jack’s face and his subsequent actions are enough to deliver the point without hammering the reader over the head with it.

Similar to Hajime Ueda’s FLCL manga, another comics adaptation of an influential animated work with a strong sense of auteur style, the Samurai Jack comic can’t be expected to recreate the full-motion dynamism of the source material. And it can definitely be argued that the minimalist art style adopted for both practical and aesthetic reasons on the Samurai Jack animated series tends to look under-rendered in a comic. But just like Ueda did for FLCL, Zubkavich and Suriano do right by Samurai Jack by playing to the comic book format’s strengths, instead of turning the comic into nothing more than a collection of storyboards. I do suspect that for the most ardent of the show’s fans, nothing less than a return to Tartakovsky-helmed animation will do, but until that happens, I think most people looking for new Samurai Jack material will be reasonably content with Zubkavich and Suriano’s comic book take on the property.

Preview gallery:

Danger Girl: The Chase #1 (of 4; IDW, $3.99)
  • DangerGirl_Chase_01-pr-001Story: Andy Hartnell
  • Illustrations: Harvey Tolibao
  • Colors: Romulo Fajardo
  • Cover: Dan Panosian
  • Publisher’s summary: On the trail of a vitally important-and wildly volatile-briefcase, the Danger Girls enter into what amounts to the most treacherous and dangerous game of hot potato of all time! Abbey, Sydney and Sonya use any and all means to traverse towns, cities, states, countries, continents(!) in their relentless pursuit to retrieve—and keep—this unstable ticking time bomb… before it begins its countdown to unimaginable danger!

Troy Osgood: Danger Girl is my guilty pleasure. But while I am fond of the IP, I never really liked the “series of miniseries” format and Danger Girl titles came out rarely so there was never much of a chance to see character development—it seemed like whatever growth seen in one story would be rolled back or forgotten with the start of the next miniseries. Even with the comics coming out with increasing regularity in recent years—now that co-creator Andy Hartnell isn’t waiting for J. Scott Campbell to turn in the interior art—it still seems like each miniseries is starting from a blank slate and not building on what has gone before.

Don’t get me wrong, the adventures are great. Danger Girl has always had a classic action-adventure sense of light-hearted, sexy fun, but I want to see some growth. The Chase doesn’t look like it will provide that, but it is still in the mold of previous Danger Girl romps, so it’s entertaining as a standalone distraction, if nothing else. Harvey Tolibao is a great choice for artist.

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Multiple Warheads: Down Fall one-shot (Image Comics, $7.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • multwarDownfall_coverStory & art: Brandon Graham
  • Cover: Brandon Graham
  • Publisher’s summary: The organ smuggler Sexica and her werewolf boyfriend Nikoli try to get by in a harsh Soviet fantasy world with dream monsters, radiation slugs, and starships falling from Wolf War 3. Reprints 2007’s “The Fall,” the original 2003 adult Warheads story, and the 2004 short “Elevator.”

Zedric: The experience of reading Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads (and his other creator-owned stuff like King City) is the comics equivalent of getting high. And I’m not talking about those drugs that get you keyed up and grinding your teeth, dreading the comedown before it even hits. Multiple Warheads is like the stuff that gets you in a mellow, contemplative state, makes you a temporary synesthete, and has you seeing animal shapes rising up and out of your living room carpet. 

The thing about the world and characters of Multiple Warheads is that as offbeat and downright bizarre they all are, one never loses the sense that they’re governed by a consistent dream-logic, from the architecture to the creature and prop designs that seem to have been the result of a word-association game: It may very well be just weirdness-for-weirdness’ sake, but there’s an almost intuitive sense of design and humor informing it all, and there’s a good chance that whatever is on the page is something you’ve never seen before in a comic, or anywhere else for that matter. Add to that Graham’s expert handle on visual storytelling and his fluency in narrative quirks derived from manga, bandes dessinée, underground comix, and more traditional forms of North American sequential art and you have a work that is many things, but is never boring.

The 80-page Down Fall collects some of the earliest Multiple Warheads stories, including the 2003 origin story that showed how Soviet black market organ smuggler Sexica managed to give her boyfriend Nikoli the wolf penis transplant that gave him werewolf powers. (Yes, that is a real sentence you just read, and yes, this origin story was from the time when Graham still worked in the erotic comics industry, so it goes without saying that this is a mature readers title). The real highlight of the one-shot though is the 2007 story “Fall,” a day-in-the-life of Sexica story that manages to reveal a lot about her relationship with Nikoli, with some tense moments towards its close. Just excellent stuff from a master of mood, pacing, and unbridled imagination.

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S.H.O.O.T. First #1 (of 4; Dark Horse, $3.99)
  • shoot1Story: Justin Aclin
  • Illustrations: Nicolas Daniel Selma
  • Colors: Marlac
  • Cover: Nicolas Daniel Selma
  • Publisher’s summary: The Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce—defending humanity from angels, demons, and a bunch of other crap S.H.O.O.T. doesn’t believe in. Justin Aclin (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Twisted ToyFare Theatre) and Nicolás Daniel Selma (Tomb Raider: The Beginning) take aim at the supernatural in an all-new big-action, big-ideas sci-fi adventure!

Zedric: S.H.O.O.T. First is “about how we deal with the loss of faith, plus it’s got crazy sci-fi action and a robot arm-wrestling a demon” according to writer and creator Justin Aclin. The first issue is an interesting read that tackles a pretty touchy topic—atheism—from a viewpoint that I am personally sympathetic to. At the same time, I’m a little wary of the possibility that the satirical bent of the writing might undermine for certain readers the scientific skepticism that I think to be the heart of Aclin’s story; especially if the writing falls into the self-defeating trap of primarily using appeals to emotion and in-group exclusivity, instead of appeals to reason, to forward its themes.

Artist Nicolas Daniel Selma is certainly a capable illustrator and visual storyteller, but I’m not fond of the unvarying width of his “ink line” as it is applied to the outlines of his figures—it looks very much like the standard “stroke” layer effect in Photoshop, and the overall result is that his people look quite flat and stiff, almost like cardboard standees, instead of three-dimensional figures caught mid-motion in a two-dimensional snapshot. He’s not the first artist to do something like this—stroke layer effects and similar software shortcuts are a big help with the job of digital inking when time is at a premium—but I really do hope that he switches techniques in future issues. It’s a shame because it’s my only real gripe with the art, but it’s a major one.

Aclin has tasked himself a somewhat difficult job here: It is clear that he intends to poke fun at (and poke holes in) capital letter F “Faith,” religion, and belief in the supernatural in S.H.O.O.T. First, but he must do so without deflating the sense of wonder that informs the sci-fi-meets-fantasy premise of the book or eroding that all-important foundation of fiction, your friend and mine, suspension of disbelief. It isn’t all that clear how he intends to do that with this first issue, as it’s mostly devoted to setting the scene and introducing the story’s major players, but I’m definitely coming along for the ride to see if and how he manages it.

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God is Dead #1 (of 6; Avatar, $3.99)
  • GodisDead1coverStory: Jonathan Hickman, Mike Costa
  • Illustrations: Di Amorim
  • Colors: Juanmar
  • Cover: Jonathan Hickman
  • God Is Dead created by: Jonathan Hickman
  • Publisher’s summary: Like a thunderbolt from heaven, the epic launch issue of GOD IS DEAD is here! East of West and Fantastic Four author JONATHAN HICKMAN launches a fierce new series that stomps where others fear to tread. Mankind has argued over the existence of gods since the dawn of time. In modern eras it’s been fashionable to mock religious believers with taunts of scientific testimony and fact. But when the gods of old begin to reappear on earth and claim the domain of man for their own, the world is thrown into a state of utter anarchy. Now Horus walks the streets of Egypt, Zeus has taken over the Sistine Chapel, and Odin is coordinating the dissection of the earth among the returned deities. Mankind held sway over the world for thousands of years and their hubris over that time has made them powerful but when faced with the divine, can mortal weapons put an end to the second coming of the gods?
  • NOTE: This comic was a personal purchase by the reviewer.

Troy: I’ve never read a Jonathan Hickman-written comic that I didn’t like. Well, until I read God Is Dead #1, that is.

This is… well I wanted to say that it’s an interesting story but there really isn’t of a story here to comment on with this first issue. Did the Gods arrive on Earth? It looks like Zeus did, but it’s hard to tell if people realized he did. There just seems to be something missing with the issue’s execution. Reading through it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe some essential pages were cut out of the final print proof. It just feels like there isn’t enough background information and exposition made available to the reader for us to care about what happens in this issue. The art by Amorim is okay—nothing outstanding about it, but it gets the job done.

Overall, it feels like this issue should have been pumped up to a double-sized edition to make room for more story. As it stands, there wasn’t enough going on to make me care about the title.

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Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #1 (of 8; Dark Horse, $3.99)
  • grindhouse_DOaM_00Story: Alex de Campi
  • Illustrations: Chris Peterson
  • Colors: Nolan Woodward
  • Cover: Francesco Francavilla
  • Publisher’s summary: Literature: overrated. Morality: expendable. Tonight is right for some over-the-top sex and violence! Bringing the flavor of midnight exploitation flicks to comics, Grindhouse delivers four two-issue gore operas, starting with “Bee Vixens from Mars,” pitting a one-eyed southern Latina deputy against lusty alien chicks bent on laying eggs in the entire male population!

Zedric: As with Zubkavich and Suriano’s Samurai Jack above, Alex de Campi and Chris Peterson’s Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #1 is an attempt at recreating the look and feel of a full-motion work in a static medium. But while Samurai Jack is tied to a specific property, Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight is an attempt to translate the signifiers of a whole film culture into comics form.

My go-to reference when thinking about comics that are of comparable scope and character to grindhouse are publications that existed during the heyday of the “exploitation film” period in the 1950s through the 1970s: EC Comics‘ horror, sci-fi, and crime comics as well as Warren Publishing‘s horror/sci-fi/fantasy comics magazine anthologies. If that comparison is in any way reasonably fair, then I think it can be argued that de Campi and Peterson have succeeded in creating “paper grindhouse” of a sort—the first serial on offer in Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight, “Bee Vixens from Mars,” certainly calls to mind the entertaining blend of horror, comedy, violence, and titillation typically seen in an issue of the old Eerie or Creepy magazines.

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Mighty Avengers #1 (Marvel, $3.99)
  • mightyavengers0100Story: Al Ewing
  • Pencils: Greg Land
  • Inks: Jay Leisten
  • Colors: Frank D’Armata
  • Cover: Greg Land
  • Publisher’s summary: The Avengers are light-years away in space, contending with the Builders! Thanos’ marauders ransack the Earth, doing as they please! Who will stand in defense of mankind? Luke Cage! The Superior Spider-Man! Spectrum! The White Tiger! Power Man! And a mysterious figure in an ill-fitting Spider-Man Halloween costume! These unlikely heroes must assemble when no one else can—against the unrelenting attack of Proxima Midnight!
  • NOTE: This comic was a personal purchase by the reviewer.

Troy: The Avengers are off-planet (thanks to the whole Infinity thing), and Earth is under attack, so it’s time for another group of heroes to step up and stand in for “The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

That’s all well and good but the “street-level Avengers” team concept has been done already and aside from the invasion angle, what is the purpose of this group coming together? Cage talks about wanting to make a difference, how taking money to be a hero isn’t right, but if that’s the case why doesn’t he just rejoin the main Avengers team? Essentially he’s recreating the same team that he left.

Al Ewing, in the issue’s backmatter section, talks about how he likes that Cage is one of the few characters that has some growth and change (hero, husband, father, quitting superheroics for his family) but starting up the Mighty Avengers seems like a step back for the one-time Hero-for-Hire. The team does come together organically, which is nice. I was afraid that with this cast it would feel forced. The threat of an invasion is a good way to bring characters together, similar to how the first team of New Warriors was formed. Ewing’s script is okay, although he slathers on the cheese rather quickly in some sections. He tries to make with the quippy humor here and there, but the attempts mostly fell flat for me.

Greg Land is an odd artist. I LOVED his early work on DC’s Birds of Prey and Crossgen’s Sojourn, but ever since he went digital his stuff has been very flat and stiff. Scenes look static and posed—instead of looking dynamic and being caught in a freeze-frame action moment—and some of the layouts are just plain odd and confusing.

I’ll probably give this title a couple of issues to win me over, beyond the Infinity tie-ins, just to see where Ewing wants to go with this roster. But overall, I didn’t find this issue very engaging.

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Sex Criminals #1 (Image Comics, $3.50) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • sexcriminals1_coverStory: Matt Fraction
  • Illustrations: Chip Zdarsky
  • Colors: Becka Kinzie
  • Cover: Chip Zdarsky
  • Publisher’s summary: Suzie’s a normal girl with an extraordinary ability: when she has sex, she stops time. One night she meets John…  who has the same gift. And so they do what any other sex-having, time-stopping, couple would do: they rob banks. In the vein of THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN and BRIDESMAIDS, Image Comics invites you to come along with MATT FRACTION (Hawkeye, SATELLITE SAM) and CHIP ZDARSKY  (Prison Funnies, Monster Cops) for the series that puts the “comic” back in “comics” and the “sexy” back in “sex crimes.”

Zedric: Here’s what I wrote about Sex Criminals #1 in an edition of Leaving Proof posted earlier this month:

“[Writer Matt] Fraction described the title’s premise during the summer’s Image Expo 2013 as ‘a girl finds out that time stops when she ‘makes whoopee.’ She meets a boy with the same power. They start robbing banks,’ but that really undersells how effective the first issue is in establishing sex not just as a storytelling device, but as the narrative’s thematic foundation. Fraction’s story, told from the first-person narration of protagonist Suzie, touches on topics like sublimated grief, masturbation as an emotional refuge, the difficulty adolescents have in finding accurate information about sex, the broader subject of sexual exploration, among others, all against a backdrop of efficient and genuinely affecting character development. The draw of Sex Criminals might be in the novelty of the offbeat premise, but long before the end of the first issue, readers will have found themselves empathizing with Suzie and her often funny, sometimes sad, frequently awkward journey towards self-realization as a person defined not just by her sexuality, but by her upbringing, family, intellect, interpersonal relationships, and interests.”

I don’t really have much more to add in my assessment of the Sex Criminals #1, except to say that Chip Zdarsky’s art plays a huge role in the comic’s successful debut: His work is by turns funny, sexy, melancholy, and imaginative—a perfect match for Fraction’s script. Very highly recommended.

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Hinterkind #1 (DC/Vertigo, $2.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • hinterkind0100Story: Ian Edginton
  • Illustrations: Francesco Trifogli
  • Colors: Cris Peter
  • Cover: Greg Tocchini
  • Publisher’s summary: Decades after “The Blight” all but wiped out the human race, Mother Nature is taking back what’s hers, and she’s not alone…The Hinterkind have returned. From the last, lost corners of the world they come, a myriad menagerie of myth and magic…but these aren’t childhood fairytale creatures. They are flesh, blood and passion, and they have a long-simmering hatred for those who drove them into the shadows: The human race! After her grandfather disappears, Prosper Monday must leave the security and seclusion of their Central Park village to venture into the wilds to find him, unaware of how much the world has changed. Or how hungry it has become…
  • NOTE: This comic was a personal purchase by the reviewer.

Troy: When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued, but not enough to buy it. I like Ian Edginton and while the premise sounded good, it didn’t jump out to me as a must-read title. We’ve seen post-apocalyptic stories before, a ton of them. It would take something really special to get me to buy another title about life after the end of the civilized world as we know it.

Ultimately, it was the preview (see below) that convinced me to pick this title up. It showed two humans hunting a zebra. That’s nothing unusual, this is a world where Mother Nature took over again, so why did this particular scene catch my attention?

They were hunting in a jungle. ON TOP OF A SKYSCRAPER!

Now that is cool. Visually, this world is stunning. Trifogli does a great job of blending our world with a jungle. His vision of future New York is absolutely matted over with vegetation, with small forests growing out of the buildings. Did the zebra walk up the stairs? What’s going on in the mid-floors? This is all stuff I want to know. So I picked up the book and was pleasantly surprised at the rest of it.

Edginton doesn’t spend any time telling or showing us what happened to the Earth, a brief “mother nature got tired of us” is all we get. But that’s enough. We don’t need to know the details, we just need to see the results. I do wish he had slowed down a bit. There are a couple revelations that could have been held in reserve, I think. Revealing so much of the mystery so early on blunts its impact a bit, but that’s me being somewhat nitpicky. The overall product is excellent. It’s well-written, with great art. The characters are interesting. The protagonist, Prosper Monday, is a sympathetic point-of-view character. She’s young, rebellious, a bit wild, loyal and adventurous. We can relate to her desire to leave her village, to get out and see and do more. Edginton also does a great job of introducing readers to the human situation without resorting to “info-dump” exposition—the character dialogue tells us everything we need to know about the politics and in-fighting that goes on in the human settlement.

A worthy addition to Vertigo’s line. This book is being added to my read pile. I can’t wait to explore this world further.

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Triple Helix #1 (of 4; IDW, $3.99)
  • TripleHelix_01-pr-001Story & illustrations: John Byrne
  • Colors: Len O’Grady
  • Cover: John Byrne
  • Publisher’s summary: Where TRIO stopped, HELIX starts! There’s a MONSTER on the loose in the City… but will the mysterious CHANGELINGS of TRIPLE HELIX destroy it before they realize it’s really an old FRIEND?

Zedric: John Byrne revisits the original superhero universe he created in last year’s Trio with Triple Helix, which focuses on The City’s other superhero team. Triple Helix #1 isn’t really what I would describe as a readily accessible issue for new readers—the events portrayed here are a direct continuation of last year’s Trio #4, and there isn’t so much as a recap page to go with the issue to help new and returning readers to get up to speed. I actually had to dig up last year’s review copies of Trio to get my bearings for this review. Having properly refamiliarized myself with the preceding material, I found Triple Helix #1 to be a fairly decent read. It’s all pretty standard superhero stuff as you can probably tell from the publisher’s summary text above, but I find a nostalgic charm to the approach Byrne is taking with these titles: It all looks and reads like Byrne’s early/mid-1980s work on superhero team books like Marvel’s Fantastic Four, The Uncanny X-Men, and Alpha Flight, and there’s some metafictional fun to be had in drawing parallels between the characters in Trio and Triple Helix and the superhero teams Byrne has worked on in the past. This one’s probably for Byrne fans only, but hey, weren’t we all Byrne fans at one point?

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Velvet #1 (Image Comics, $3.50 print, $2.99 digital) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • velvet01_coverStory: Ed Brubaker
  • Illustrations: Steve Epting
  • Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser
  • Cover: Steve Epting
  • Publisher’s summary: ED BRUBAKER and STEVE EPTING redefined Captain America with the “Winter Soldier” saga… and everything they’ve done so far has been leading to VELVET! When the world’s best secret agent is killed, Velvet Templeton, the Personal Assistant to the Director of the Agency, is drawn off her desk and back into the field for the first time in nearly 20 years… and is immediately caught in a web of mystery, murder and high-octane action. Sexy and provocative, with a dark twist on the spy genre, this EXTRA-LENGTH first issue by two of the industry’s best-selling creators will knock you out! 

Troy: Steve Epting is my favorite artist, has been for awhile, so anything with his name attached is an instant-buy for me. I liked Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, especially the Epting issues. So this book was going to be an automatic pick-up regardless of whether or not the premise hooked me from the outset. But what do you know, the premise sounded really interesting, leading me to think i would have gotten this issue even without the draw of the creators.

We all know the “Girll Friday” in popular film and literature. The female sidekick, the secretary, the conscience, etc. that is less a fleshed-out character than a plot device whose main purpose is to help out the male hero and is, more often than not, hopelessly in love with the hero. So what happens when the Girl Friday is every bit as capable as (or even more capable than) the hero?

Throw that premise  into the height of the Cold War espionage era, add a top secret organization and a couple of James Bond-types and you get Velvet. Comics fans always complain about there being nothing new on the shelves. Velvet is that something new.

The issue looks beautiful. Epting really captures the feel of the times: the clothing, the hairstyles, it’s all there, and it is spot on. Brubaker’s dialogue does right by the setting as well. Excellent art and excellent writing all around. What more could you ask for in a first issue?

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Three #1 (of 5; Image Comics, $2.99)
  • three01_coverStory: Kieron Gillen
  • Illustrations: Ryan Kelly
  • Colors: Jordie Bellaire
  • Cover: Ryan Kelly
  • Historical Consultant: Stephen Hodkinson, PhD (University of Nottingham Professor of Ancient History; Director, Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies; Director, Institute for the Study of Slavery)
  • Publisher’s summary: When a member of the Spartan ruling class visits an isolated homestead of Helot workers, a brutal massacre is only the beginning. KIERON GILLEN (PHONOGRAM, Über, Iron Man), RYAN KELLY (Saucer County, Local) and JORDIE BELLAIRE (THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, NOWHERE MEN) unite to tell the heroic story of three slaves and their desperate attempt to escape 300 of the finest warriors who’ve ever lived.

Zedric: Three can be described as the antidote to Frank Miller’s 300, if you like: One of the major criticisms that has been lobbed against Miller’s popular work is its lack of historical accuracy and selective parsing and skewing of facts to serve his narrative ideal of the hypermasculine Spartans acting as the Greek civilization’s last best defense against the marauding Asiatic horde.

With Three, writer Kieron Gillen, with the help of internationally-recognized expert on Spartan history Dr. Stephen Hodkinson, attempts to dispel or at least update the historicity of the myth of the Spartan as this ancient paragon of Western-style democracy. For one thing, Gillen points out that the pioneering notion of democracy ascribed to ancient Greece is very different from our modern democracies: the ancient Greeks used slaves, and in the case of the Spartans, they were served by a slave-workforce known as the helots, any number of which the Spartans could abuse or kill without fear of repercussion—the Spartans actually had an annual rite of passage called Crypteia where young knife-wielding Spartans would slaughter helots as proof of their potential worth as soldiers and citizens of Sparta. Another fact Gillen brings up in the course of Three #1’s dialogue is that the helots actually fought as shield carriers and armed retainers alongside their Spartan masters during the legendary Battle of Thermopylae. In the “backmatter” section of the comic (not included in the digital review copy but available in the print copy), Gillen mentions historian Philip Hunt’s theory that the ratio of helot skirmishers fighting beside Spartan heavy infantry may have been as high as 8:1 in some battles… this doesn’t significantly diminish Sparta’s overall reputation for tactical and strategic military prowess, but it certainly changes our mental image of who was actually doing most of the fighting during the city-state’s most celebrated victories.

But as illuminative as Three is as far as the presentation of actual historical fact as we know it, it still has to entertain as a work of popular sequential art, and it is in this aspect that it suffers a bit. The devotion of the issue to “info-dump”-style exposition leaves precious little room for meaningful character interaction and development. Still, some readers may find the disputation of the Spartan myth as entertaining in and of itself, and I think the miniseries is worth following at least until the next issue or two, if only to see if Gillen can give us a better sense of personality and depth to his story’s protagonists.

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IMAGINE Agents #1 (of 4; BOOM! Studios, $3.99)
  • ImagineAgents_01_preview_Page_1Story: Brian Joines
  • Illustrations: Bachan
  • Colors: Ruth Redmond
  • Cover: Khary Randolph with Matthew Wilson
  • Publisher’s summary: Ever try to wrangle an illiterate, 30-foot tall rock monster away from his 5-year-old best friend? Or calm down a 400 pound muscle-man rag-doll during her daily temper-tantrum? For Dave and Terry, it’s all in a day’s work. As agents for I.M.A.G.I.N.E., they are responsible for keeping your imaginary friends in-line … Little do they know that six-year-old Elliot and his best bear-friend, Furdlgurr, are about to be entangled in a plan to change everything!

Zedric: Despite what looks like an excellently-executed kid-friendly aesthetic and dramatic beats that will dredge up memories of Toy Story‘s most affecting moments, there are hints of a dangerous and somewhat darker fantasy world beneath the Men in Black-meets-Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends veneer of Brian Joines and Bachan’s IMAGINE Agents. Herobear and the Kid, this isn’t. That’s not to suggest that this is one of those subversive works disguised as children’s entertainment—this is still all-ages fantasy-adventure stuff that can be enjoyed with little adult supervision or guidance (provided you draw the lower limit of the “all-ages” definition at, say, eight or nine years old). On the whole, however, IMAGINE Agents will probably work best for readers aged ten and up: there are some themes here that might be troublesome for children still in their imaginary friend phase themselves.

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Pretty Deadly #1 (Image Comics, $3.50 print, $2.99 digital)
  • prettydeadly01_coverStory: Kelly Sue DeConnick
  • Illustrations: Emma Ríos
  • Colors: Jordie Bellaire
  • Cover: Emma Ríos
  • Publisher’s summary: KELLY SUE DECONNICK (Avengers Assemble, Captain Marvel) & EMMA RÍOS (Dr. Strange, Osborn) reunite to bring you an all-new ongoing series that marries the magical realism of Sandman with the western brutality of Preacher.  Death’s daughter rides the wind on a horse made of smoke and her face bears the skull marks of her father. Her tale of retribution is as beautifully lush as it is unflinchingly savage.

Zedric: Now that all the online bleating over last week’s controversy surrounding L.A.-area comic book store Comics Ink and Pretty Deadly has died down, I feel like I’m able to give a more reasoned assessment of the series’ debut issue, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s first creator-owned title for Image Comics. The problem, if one could call it that (and I wouldn’t, really), is that this issue is as much about the establishment of mood and atmosphere as it is about the typical exposition phase most writers resort to. Readers expecting a more conventional, workmanlike approach, with the whys and wherefores of the plot plainly served up to them, will likely find the writing a little rudderless and even confusing, but it seems to me that DeConnick is experimenting with the use of recursive, self-referential storytelling devices. It’s an interesting approach, albeit one that may not have totally succeeded—this is one of those instances where a double-sized first issue, allowing the story to breathe instead of being cut off at the 20-odd page mark, could have probably helped.

But while I do hold some reservations about DeConnick’s storytelling choices, I have no such concerns with Emma Ríos’ art. Her vision of the Old West is at once beautiful and dangerous, and Jordie Bellaire’s understated palette gives the whole affair an appropriately dusty, weather-worn look.

I’ll definitely be picking up the second issue, if only to see where DeConnick is going with all this.

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Rocket Girl #1 (Image Comics, $3.50)
  • rocketgirl01_coverStory: Brandon Montclare
  • Art: Amy Reeder
  • Cover: Amy Reeder
  • Publisher’s summary: A teenage cop from a high-tech future is sent back in time to 1986 New York City.  Dayoung Johansson is investigating the Quintum Mechanics megacorporation for crimes against time.  As she pieces together the clues, she discovers the “future” she calls home – an alternate reality version of 2013 – shouldn’t exist at all! Blast off with the new ongoing series by BRANDON MONTCLARE (Halloween Eve) and Eisner Award nominee AMY REEDER (Batwoman, Madame Xanadu).

Zedric: It’s been a little over a year since I last read and reviewed a comic by the pairing of Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder and that’s just too long, given how well Halloween Eve turned out. With Rocket Girl, Montclare and Reeder tackle the science-fiction genre in a story that has time-travel, alternate futures, and rocket packs. As with Zoë: Out of Time, another “girl from the future goes back in time comic” recently reviewed in this space, it’s best for readers to not think too hard about the plot implications and paradoxes that might arise from the story’s time-travel conceit and just enjoy the experience.

Dayoung Johannson is a classic Pippi Longstocking-esque protagonist, an irrepressible bundle of good intentions and overabundant energy who manages to help people despite an exasperating tendency to blunder into all manner of trouble at every turn. The real draw for me here however, is Reeder’s art: it’s sleek and dynamic, and she flexes her visual storytelling muscles in a couple of impressive multi-panel double-page spreads that feature drastic shifts in perspective and distance that nonetheless retain their clarity. It’s not all flash, though: Reeder has a great handle on facial expressions and gesture as well as action. Fun stuff all around.

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Noctua #1 (Alterna Comics via comiXology, $1.99)
  • Noctua - Issue #1-001Story: Andrew Henderson
  • Illustrations: Orlando Baez
  • Colors: Eagle Gosselin
  • Publisher’s summary: The year is 2051. A new strain of virus has mutated 5% of the Earth’s population into creatures of the night. “Vampires,” as they’re called by their detractors, tentatively co-exist alongside humans thanks to Aeternus Eternus, a synthetic form of sustenance created by Biotech giant Imago Labs. But for some, nothing can truly replace the taste of fresh blood…fresh human blood. As the illegal blood trade rises, a new predator takes to the streets. One which even the Vampires themselves fear. Those who have seen him and lived to tell about it can only utter one word to describe the winged avenger, hell-bent on ridding the world of their people. 

Zedric: Andrew M. Henderson’s vampire comic Noctua has been available for purchase on comiXology for some time now (issue #2, in fact, has recently been posted for digital sale as well). One of the premises of the book, that vampires—referred to in the issue with the fiction’s more politically correct label of “transhumans”—have been integrated (to a degree) into human society, is an intriguing hook, although comparisons to Alan Ball’s True Blood will be inevitable, especially with Henderson making it clear from the outset that he intends to use human-transhuman relations to address the themes of race and minority integration. Certain character dynamics also call to mind 1998’s Blade, with Noctua‘s Alucard Constans playing the Dragonetti to the “vampire supremacist” Crispus Contans’ Deacon Frost. That being said, originality can sometimes be overrated as an attribute in pop culture works—the more important question to ask where Noctua is concerned is about the execution.

alotofwordballoonsIn that regard, Noctua is a competent work of vampire-themed sequential art and fiction, although it does have its fair share of rough edges. This is most readily apparent in Orlando Baez’ line art and Eagle Gosselin’s colors, particularly as it applies to background details or the lack thereof, although Baez does decent work with human figures and faces. It’s difficult to get a sense of place and time when all a reader has to go on is a vague pre-rendered texture for a background, and this problem is further compounded by the visual storytelling’s paucity of clear establishing shots whenever the narrative shifts locations, and in these cases, the writing has to bear some of the responsibility, too. In fact, without the benefit of the ad copy and the dialogue, I would have been hard-pressed to tell that the story took place in the future year of 2051—it could have been set in 1994 just basing it on the visuals. Page layouts and word balloon placement could have also used some more consideration, as there are times when they defy the rules of the visual grammar of comics and undermine clarity—the page on the right is one such example of a situation where the lettering, page and panel layout, and dense dialogue all seem to be working against each other.

Still, Noctua, with its first issue, has already defined clear motivations for its primary cast of characters and what seems to be a sensibly structured narrative arc. That’s more than can be said for a lot of comics out there. And with artist J. C. Grande (Divine Intervention, Johnny Monster) taking over the illustration chores in issue #2, it’s not unrealistic to expect Noctua to fulfill its creative potential within the span of its initial run, however brief or long that may be.

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Paragon #1A and #1B (Superhero Network Entertainment, $2.99)
  • Paragon 1Aand1BStory: Paul Jamison
  • Art: Godfrey Mawema (Paragon #1A), Gilbert Dudley (Paragon #1B)
  • Publisher’s summary: Benjamin Byrne is a teenage boy who exists in an overly idyllic world. After years of depression over the loss of his Father, Ben wants to end it all. The attempt passes him through a doorway into our world. Lost and alone; Ben sleeps in a homeless shelter earning money ingesting experimental medicines. However, when the side effects kick in, Ben’s system restarts itself imbuing him with special abilities. With the assistance of Latisha, a volunteer at the shelter, Ben embarks on a journey to uncover why this world cannot metamorphose into the world of the unspoiled.

Zedric: Paul Jamison’s self-published Paragon is an interesting experiment in variable comic book art: There are two version of the first issue: Paragon #1A is rendered in a painted style, while Paragon #1B, drawn by a different artist, is rendered in a more conventional linework-based style. I wish the artists were given freer reign to develop their own layouts, but as can be seen in the preview gallery below, the layouts are fairly identical. Still, it’s an ambitious attempt at injecting creative novelty, and I can come up with a long list of comics that I’d love to see handled in this manner. The actual quality of the work will remind readers of a certain age of the 1980s self-published comics boom: The writing could use some proofing and the third-person narration can be terribly unwieldy at times, and the art is quite raw.

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