The GeeksverseFirst Impressions | Umbral, Amazing X-Men, Clown Fatale, and more

First Impressions | Umbral, Amazing X-Men, Clown Fatale, and more
Published on Thursday, November 28, 2013 by
Zedric, Troy, and Joe give their quick reviews of ten November first issues, including the debuts of Alex + Ada, Amazing X-Men, Umbral, Clown Fatale, Manifest Destiny, Black Science, Transformers: Dark Cybertron, Protocol: Orphans, 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.

Alex + Ada #1 (Image Comics, $2.99) [EDITOR'S PICK]
  • alexada01_coverStory: Jonathan Luna, Sarah Vaughn
  • Art: Jonathan Luna
  • Cover: Jonathan Luna
  • Publisher’s summary: From JONATHAN LUNA (GIRLS, THE SWORD, Spider-Woman, ULTRA) and SARAH VAUGHN (Sparkshooter) comes ALEX + ADA, a sci-fi drama set in the near future. The last thing in the world Alex wanted was an X5, the latest in realistic androids. But when Ada is dropped into his life, will Alex keep her?

Zedric Dimalanta: The Luna Brothers, whether by circumstance or design, have carved out a reputation as comics creators who specialize in comics that explore male-female relationships vis-à-vis an earnest male perspective, filtered through the various comic book genres. Ultra, their breakthrough 2004 debut at Image Comics, was described as “Sex in the City goes superheroine.” Their follow-up, the 24-issue maxiseries Girls, viewed the young adult male’s insecurities and struggles with navigating romantic relationships via the lens of science-fiction. 2007′s The Sword showed that the brothers could do hack-and-slash fantasy action with the best of them, while still serving as a thoughtful rumination on the bonds of family, especially those between father and daughter.

One common criticism of their work is that the execution is too often ridiculously on-the-nose, with metaphors—both visual and textual—that lack subtlety or nuance, and protagonists whose dialogue and points of view are informed by so much overwritten navel-gazing and clumsy introspection so as to be almost solipsistic. It was only a minor surprise to me, then, that the Luna work I enjoyed the most was senior Luna sibling Jonathan’s illustrated modern fairy tale Star Bright and the Looking Glass, as many of the qualities that detract from their relationship-themed, mature readers-rated comics actually work well within the fairy tale conceit.

Alex + Ada #1 sees Jonathan Luna working with web cartoonist Sarah Vaughn, an arrangement that already pays off in this early juncture: This issue has the most naturalistic conversations I’ve read in a Luna-penned comic, and there are places where the creators wisely let the visuals do the talking instead of doubling down on the exposition, although there are still sequences here and there where they could have used more of a “show, don’t tell” approach. The art, however, is prime Luna: the linework is crisp, facial expressions are clearly defined, and the talking head sequences the script calls for are interestingly staged.

On the whole, Luna and Vaughn do an excellent job introducing readers to the principal characters and especially the near-future sci-fi setting of Alex + Ada where robot technology has advanced to a degree that androids serve important roles in society (including functioning as sexual surrogates for their human owners). It’s a premise absolutely brimming with speculative potential that goes beyond the entertaining but often casual examination of gender issues the Lunas’ most popular works engage in. Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn can use Alex + Ada to specifically and meaningfully address all manner of relevant issues ranging from how modern technology like tablets and smartphones are significantly changing human sexual habits to the question of whether or not anything resembling genuine emotion can be modeled in machine intelligences—here’s hoping that the pair make the most of that promise in succeeding issues.

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Amazing X-Men #1 (Marvel Comics, $3.99) [EDITOR'S PICK]
  • AMX2013001Story: Jason Aaron
  • Pencils: Ed McGuinness
  • Inks: Dexter Vines
  • Colors: Marte Gracia
  • Cover: Ed McGuinness with Marte Gracia
  • Publisher’s summary: An AMAZING new era for the X-Men starts here! Ever since his Nightcrawler’s death in X-MEN MESSIAH COMPLEX, the X-Men have been without their heart and soul. After learning that their friend may not be gone after all, it’s up to WOLVERINE, STORM, BEAST, ICEMAN, NORTHSTAR and FIRESTAR to find and bring back the fan favorite fuzzy blue elf! Super star artist ED MCGUINNESS (HULK) joins master X-Writer JASON AARON (WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN, X-MEN: SCHISM) to bring you the most exciting comic on the stands!
  • NOTE: This comic was a personal purchase by the reviewer.

Troy Osgood: Nightcrawler’s back. Kind of. He’s still dead, but he has returned from his apparent demise, and he’s not a zombie or a vampire. Anyway, it makes some sort of sense in the context of the story.

In a few short pages Jason Aaron makes me remember why I loved the character in the first place. Ah, what fun Kurt Wagner was. He’s back in all his swashbuckling goodness (does this mean Amanda Sefton will return at some point too?).

This issue, you would think, would have built off the epilogue of Battle of the Atom where Old Iceman tells the younger one to keep an eye on the Bamfs (the little blue nightcrawler-like critters that haunt the Jean Grey school). That would seem a natural place to start the quest for Nightcrawler but instead that little tidbit is forgotten and ignored.  The story starts off with Beast discovering why the Bamfs are at the school in the first place.  They were sent to get help.

And the X-Men, being X-Men, head off (in a way) to provide that help.

Aaron does good with some of the cast of Wolverine and the X-Men that he’s seemingly forgotten about. Warbird (the current bearer of the codename, not to be confused with Carol Danvers) figures in a prominent role this issue, as well as Northstar and new roster member, Firestar. The tone on this title is similar to that on Wolverine and the X-Men and Firestar’s introduction to the school is great, with some fun interaction between her, Iceman, and Warbird. Seeing Firestar and Iceman together made me wish Spider-Man would show up.

I’m still not sold that there’s much reason for this book to exist given what Aaron is already doing on Wolverine and the X-Men but at least we get Nightcrawler and that’s a good thing.

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Clown Fatale #1 (of 4; Dark Horse Comics, $3.99)
  • clofat1p0Story: Victor Gischler
  • Illustrations: Maurizio Rosenzweig
  • Colors: Moreno DiNisio
  • Cover: Tim Seeley
  • Publisher’s summary: Sexy female clowns are mistaken for contract killers and abandon their shabby traveling circus for a world of violence and cruelty—with clown makeup.

Zedric Dimalanta: Victor Gischler and Maurizio Rosenzweig’s Clown Fatale is an unapologetic homage to the sexploitation flicks of the 1960s and 1970s—it’s an even more successful comic book translation of grindhouse cinema than last month’s Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #1—but it is that fidelity to the material that serves as its inspiration that I imagine will be problematic for certain readers. There’s no questioning the level of craft Gischler and Rosenzweig have applied to this project: story, dialogue, and art work together to recreate in print the kind of violence-soaked titillation that readers familiar with the genre will remember from films like Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go To Hell. (Whether or not it’s a good idea to do so is an entirely different and more complicated discussion, however, one that I think is beyond the purview of First Impressions, but it’s a topic I hope to address in a future column.)

There are few indications, at least at this very early point in the miniseries, that Gischler is looking to recontextualize or subvert the dodgy sexual politics of the sexploitation genre in Clown Fatale in the same way that, say, Anna Biller did in 2007′s Viva. I don’t mean to suggest that sexploitation material must be treated at a metatextual or satirical remove for it to be in any way deemed “acceptable” popular entertainment in contemporary times, but it also bears mentioning that themes of sexual coercion and “unironic” depictions of sexual violence play a central role in this first issue.

I’ll be back to check out at least the second issue of Clown Fatale, not just to see more of Rosenzweig’s excellent art which is, without exaggeration, some of the best I’ve seen in an original comic all year in terms of rendering and storytelling (I think the cover by Tim Seeley actually does a disservice to the issue’s interior artwork), but also because I’m genuinely interested to see where Gischler is looking to go with all of this: I wouldn’t go so far as to call the comic transgressive, but Gischler’s treading precarious ground here, and I’m curious to see if it’s in the service of a larger point than simple homage to the sexploitation entertainment of the past century.

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Protocol: Orphans #1 (of 4; BOOM! Studios, $3.99)
  • Protocol_01_CVRStory: Michael Alan Nelson
  • Illustrations: Mariano Navarro
  • Colors: Gabriel Cassata
  • Cover: Stephane Roux
  • Protocol: Orphans created by: Peter Facinelli, Rob DeFranco
  • Publisher’s summary: Grabbed up by the United States government and thrown into training camps, orphans around the country have been raised to become America’s next generation of superspies. Now, as adults, they live amongst us, ready for “the family” to call them back into action.

Zedric Dimalanta: A solidly-executed debut effort, Protocol: Orphans #1 wears its filmic leanings and aspirations on its sleeve. Like Steven Grant’s 2 Guns, Protocol: Orphans seems purposefully made for adaptation to film or television, with a streamlined Hollywood-ready core high concept descended from Luc Besson’s Nikita (and its television spin-offs)—it’s probably no coincidence that the property’s co-creators, Peter Facinelli and Rob DeFranco, are involved in television and film in various roles (the pair own the A7SLE Films production outfit).

I did have some reservations about Protocol: Orphans going into reading it, as Comics Beat‘s Heidi MacDonald opined earlier this year, “the glitzy comics-to-movies company model of the Aughts—Virgin, Radical, Platinum—has mostly run its course, with very little to show for it,” with the aforementioned 2 Guns perhaps being the most notable success in a field littered with non-starters and spectacular failures. All that being said, Protocol: Orphans exceeded my presumptions and expectations: It’s a fairly entertaining read with visual storytelling that rises above the merely competent, and the issue’s cliffhanger ending promises a mystery subplot to go along with the balls-to-the-wall action.

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Umbral #1 (Image Comics, $2.99) [EDITOR'S PICK]
  • umbral01_coverStory: Antony Johnston
  • Illustrations: Christopher Mitten
  • Colors: John Rauch
  • Umbral created by: Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten
  • Publisher’s summary: “THE DAY DAWNED TWICE” — A NEW DARK FANTASY FROM THE CREATORS OF WASTELAND! The young thief called Rascal witnesses the horrific murder of the royal family — now the world’s dark legends will be relived, and only Rascal even knows it’s happening! Master worldbuilder ANTONY JOHNSTON (Dead Space, Daredevil) and his Wasteland co-creator CHRISTOPHER MITTEN (Batman, Criminal Macabre) bring you a new fantasy world rich in mythology, history, and blood! Extra-long first issue for the regular price of $2.99!

Zedric Dimalanta: I have been terribly remiss in letting Comixverse readers know about Oni Press’ Wasteland, the post-apocalyptic science-fantasy comic series created by Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten that stands as one of my current favorite ongoing titles. A big part of that is because I’ve fallen behind quite severely in my Wasteland readings; I’m about three years behind in the series, ever since I started regularly reviewing comics for the Comixverse, actually—and these days I tend to save my personal comics reading for increasingly rare personal comics reading binges.

Hopefully, we won’t see the same situation arise with Umbral, which sees Johnston and Mitten reunited, this time in a medieval fantasy-themed comic. This first issue starts off in medias res, with our heroine Rascal already in the midst of a perilous flight from dark forces seemingly intent on her capture or death. The flashbacks showing the reader the events leading up to the opening page come quick enough, and Johnston wastes no time doing what he does best in comics, establishing a living, breathing fictional world populated by interesting and believable characters. Johnston has few peers in comics with regards to his ability to seamlessly integrate exposition with entertainment. I already had a rather firm idea of the nature of the setting and its people a dozen pages in without the sensation of having that information being explicitly laid out in front of me, as Johnston does an excellent job of peppering the dialogue with just enough worldbuilding information so that it makes sense within the context of conversation. Credit must be given to Mitten as well, who brings the fantasy world of the comic to life with his dynamic and detailed illustrations: he doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds and there are a variety of body types and facial structures in use, even in the issue’s crowd scenes. I had my concerns about how Mitten’s art would look in color as I’ve only ever read his work in grayscale, but Rauch’s colors thankfully make the work pop instead of conflicting with or obscuring the linework (always a risk in these days of digital coloring, color separation, and printing, where the use of gradients to add texture on top of that already implied by the linework can go overboard).

I will readily admit that much of my enthusiasm for Umbral #1 stems from the capital the creative team has built up from their work on Wasteland, but even those unfamiliar with their prior work will find this first issue a visual treat and an engaging introduction to a new fantasy world worth visiting. Highly recommended.

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Manifest Destiny #1 (Image Comics, $2.99) [EDITOR'S PICK]
  • manifestdest01_coverStory: Chris Dingess
  • Illustrations: Matthew Roberts
  • Colors: Owen Gieni
  • Publisher’s summary: In 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark set out on an expedition to explore the uncharted American frontier. This is the story of what they discovered lurking in the wilds… Skybound’s newest original series unveils the monsters of the western frontier in the adventure of a lifetime by writer CHRIS DINGESS (Being Human) and up-and-coming artist MATTHEW ROBERTS.

Troy Osgood: I like the “hidden world” stuff, where there’s magic and mystery in the everyday world and most people don’t see it. There’s a lot of stories out there, some of it bad (the fantasy romance) and some of it good. I’m always on the look out for new stuff in that genre (is it an official genre?) and the solicitation for this sounded interesting.

Everyone (at least in the United States) knows the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the two-and-a-half year trek that saw two young Army officers map a route through unexplored lands as they made their way to the Pacific coast, gathering information about the native tribes, geography, flora, and fauna in the process. Neophyte comics writer Chris Dingess (a veteran TV writer-producer whose credits include Being Human and Reaper) and artist Matthew Roberts (Battle Pope, Invincible) playfully provide readers their answer to the speculative question: Do we know the “true” story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition?

Dingess’ story is all sorts of fun with its fantastical, alternative history skewing of the real-world premise, but he also takes care to flesh out the different characters. For his part, Roberts showcases an eye for detail and sound layouts. He also employs a diverse array of morphologies for his characters and an interesting stylization that cartoonishly exaggerates facial features, but not overly so. I can’t wait to see more of his fantasy creature designs because what we see in this first issue is real interesting. Along with colorist Owen Gieni (Glory, Debris), Roberts also demonstrates judicious control of hue and shadow, with one splash page standing out as particularly memorable.

manifestdestiny_splash

I can’t wait to see where the story goes and just how far off this “true” story is from what we learned in school.

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Black Science #1 (Image Comics, $3.50) [EDITOR'S PICK]
  • blackscience01_coverAStory: Rick Remender
  • Illustrations: Matteo Scalera
  • Painted art: Dean White
  • Cover: Matteo Scalera and Dean White
  • Publisher’s summary: Grant McKay, former member of The Anarchistic Order of Scientists, has finally done the impossible: He has deciphered Black Science and punched through the barriers of reality. But what lies beyond the veil is not epiphany, but chaos. Now Grant and his team are lost, living ghosts shipwrecked on an infinite ocean of alien worlds, barreling through the long-forgotten, ancient, and unimaginable dark realms. The only way is forward. The only question is how far are they willing to go, and how much can they endure, to get home again? Join writer RICK REMENDER and the superstar art team of MATTEO SCALERA & DEAN WHITE for this face-melting science fiction epic spanning the lifetimes of a cast of dimensional castaways lead by the man who caused it all.

Zedric Dimalanta: Remender and Scalera’s Black Science reminds me somewhat of Remender and Tony Moore’s Fear Agent: There’s the offbeat pulp sci-fi conceit, of course, and then there’s the blend of action, comedy, and melancholy, as well as a male protagonist haunted by past choices and mistakes. But while Fear Agent started with relatively low narrative stakes before building to a story that ultimately plumbed some dark and personal depths, Black Science starts with a tragedy that, in some ways, doesn’t feel like it has earned much emotional resonance or cathartic power. Without spoiling the events depicted in the issue, let me just say that it’s difficult to empathize with what is supposed to be the protagonist’s sense of grief given the breakneck speed in which characters, settings, and concepts are introduced in this issue.

Nevertheless, I’m giving this series a measured recommendation primarily on the strength of the art of illustrator Matteo Scalera and painter Dean White. Black Science #1 is a gorgeous-looking comic book and Scalera and White should be on 2014 Eisner and Harvey Award voters’ early lists of best artist and best colorist/painter, respectively. This is painted comics done right, combining the dynamism of free-flowing linework with the depth and texture of painting. Need convincing? Just check out the preview gallery below.

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Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe #1 (of 4; Marvel Comics, $2.99)
  • LONGSHOT2013001-00Story: Christopher Hastings
  • Illustrations: Jacopo Camagni
  • Colors: Matt Milla
  • Cover: David Nakayama
  • Publisher’s summary: When someone is targeting the lucky for death, it won’t take long before the luckiest X-Man, Longshot, is in the killer’s sights. But things quickly go from bad to worse as super heroes, villains, all of S.H.I.E.L.D. and even COSMIC ENTITIES have it out for our boy! Is Longshot finally in over his head, or can he beat the odds and save the Marvel Universe when no one else can?
  • NOTE: This comic was a personal purchase by the reviewer.

Troy Osgood: Why did I buy this?  I like Longshot and Peter David did an excellent job with the character and his son/father (go read X-Factor!) in the recently canceled series.  So I was hoping for good things from this, despite a wholly different creative team.

It’s very disappointing.

Hastings does not seem to understand the character at all.  His portrayal of Longshot is wrong on so many levels and doesn’t square with the way he has been written by previous writers. The editor should have read the script and scrapped the whole thing.  The attempts at humor fall flat. Longshot is a character that goes with the flow, he’s never really acknowledged his luck like this character does, and especially not in such an annoying way. The pacing of the story is way off.  The parts with Reed Richards and Tony Stark don’t help the story, they just interrupt it.

The art is decent, but the new haircut for Longshot (see the preview pages below) is bad.

Why was this published?  Better question, why did I spend money on it? [Force of consumer habit?—ed.]

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Transformers: Dark Cybertron #1 (Part 1 of 12; IDW, $3.99)
  • DRKCYBRTRN01_cvrA copyStory: James Roberts, John Barber
  • Layouts: Phil Jimenez
  • Finishes: Andrew Griffith
  • Prologue art: Brendan Cahill with J.P. Bove
  • Colors: Josh Perez
  • Cover: Phil Jimenez with Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
  • Publisher’s summary: THE END OF EVERYTHING! SHOCKWAVE makes a move millions of years in the planning—an ultimate plan to remake Cybertron and destroy both the Autobots and Decepticons! Bringing together the casts of the hit MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE and ROBOTS IN DISGUISE for the first time in two years!

Joe Milone: Transformers: Dark Cyberton #1 is an interesting read… if you happen to be already reading IDW’s two mainline Transformers titles, Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye and Transformers: Robots in Disguise. If you’re like me and just picking this issue up to see if it will ease you into the goings-on of IDW’s Transformers universe however, prepare to be confused. New reader-friendly, this issue is not, although the recap on the inside cover does help in illuminating things slightly.

In its favor, the art is quite impressive and the dialogue is interesting, even if half of the time I wasn’t really sure what the characters were talking about.

I imagine there are enough Internet resources out there that any one new to IDW’s original Transformers titles can probably get up to speed and hit the ground running with this issue although my recommendation is, if you want to invest in this 12-part crossover and you haven’t dipped your toe into IDW’s Transformers comics, you’d be best served picking up the most recent More Than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise trades first.

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Painkiller Jane: The Price of Freedom #1 (of 4; Marvel/ICON, $3.99)
  • PKJANEPRICE2013001-00Story: Jimmy Palmiotti
  • Illustrations: Juan Santacruz, Sam Lotfi
  • Colors: Paul Mounts
  • Cover: Amanda Conner
  • Publisher’s summary: PAINKILLER JANE is back in action as we follow her on an adrenaline filled adventure protecting a Saudi Arabian princess on her visit to the New York City. It seems a number of people want her dead and the only thing between them and her royal highness is our gun toting, out of control, Painkiller Jane. Also in this issue a 10 page back up telling you all about the origin of Painkiller Jane and her friendship between her best friend Detective Maureen Fernandez.
  • NOTE: This comic was a personal purchase by the reviewer.

Troy Osgood: Jane is one of those characters that has been around for years but never quite found a steady publication home. She was a product of the 1990s “Bad Girl” trend and has managed to survive when so many of those haven’t, even the ones that were notable  hits like Billy Tucci’s Shi and Brian Pulido’s Lady Death. To be honest, I think the only reason she has survived is because of Jimmy Palmiotti. Every creator seems to have a character that they can never leave and will always try to bring back. I think Painkiller Jane is that character for Palmiotti.

The latest Jane series is off to a decent start. There’s some stuff to like. The story is interesting, even if it seems to be a bit cliché at the start. Jane is a decent character and she isn’t ridiculously overpowered like so many of her “Bad Girl” peers. The issue falters here and there though. There’s a gratuitous nip slip that feels like was simply thrown in to justify the “Mature Readers” rating and some clunky pacing that can probably be laid on some of artist Juan Santacruz’s layout choices, although the art, on the whole, is pretty good.  I do appreciate the 10-page back-up origin story tacked on at the end: It really helps novice readers get acquainted with the character and her surprisingly involved history.

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