The GeeksverseFirst Impressions | Princess Ugg, Elektra, Southern Bastards, Conan the Avenger, and Justice League United

First Impressions | Princess Ugg, Elektra, Southern Bastards, Conan the Avenger, and Justice League United
Published on Thursday, May 1, 2014 by
Join us as we share our reviews and multi-page previews of Elektra #1, Southern Bastards #1, Princess Ugg #1—Herzerker Edition, Conan the Avenger #1, and Justice League United #0. 

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

Princess Ugg #1—Herzerker Edition (Oni Press, $5.00) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • PrincessUgg01_HerzerkedEd_001Story & illustrations: Ted Naifeh
  • Cover: Ted Naifeh
  • Publisher’s summary: A new series from Courtney Crumrin‘s Ted Naifeh! Within the fairy-tale kingdom of Atraesca lies the prestigious Princess Academy, where young royals from all the five kingdoms come to get their education. But they’ve never before seen the like of Princess Ülga of Grimmeria. Armed with axe and sword, riding her war mammoth through the city gates, Ülga has come in search of schooling. But this barbarian princess might just end up schooling the people of Atraesca before that happens!
  • Click here to read our 2012 interview with Princess Ugg writer-artist Ted Naifeh.
  • NOTE: This is a review of an early release black & white edition of Princess Ugg #1 made exclusively available to Wondercon Anaheim 2014 attendees and select members of the comics press. The retail edition of Princess Ugg #1 will be priced at $3.99 and hit stores on June 4, 2014. Additionally, it will be printed in full color, with coloring provided by Warren Wucinich.

As anyone who has followed my writing in the Leaving Proof series of columns and my previous reviews of trade and hardcover comics collections can attest, I’m something of a Conan comics fan, specifically, the original Robert E. Howard material as expanded and translated into comic book form by publisher Dark Horse in its original Conan comics line. I felt more than a little measure of glee, then, when I realized a couple of pages into reading Princess Ugg #1 that writer and artist Ted Naifeh was doing, at least in part and for this first issue, a pastiche of Howard’s signature creation. (The mention of “Grimmeria” in the solicitation copy—see above—should have been a dead giveaway, but I missed the solicitations when they were first announced.)

But make no mistake—Princess Ugg isn’t a distaff Conan parody nor is a familiarity with the sword-and-sorcery genre a requirement to enjoy this title’s first issue. Sure, Howard’s pet theme of the noble savage interacting with spoiled civilized peoples is evident, but it’s clear even this early on that Naifeh is intent on recouching, if not outright subverting, that particular premise. The result is a comic that, while steeped in genre tropes and expectations, is also very accessible to new readers of varying inclinations. It would be lazy to call Princess Ugg “Conan for tween girls”: There’s something here for everyone, from young readers of either sex to the long-time sword-and-sorcery fan looking for something new to the genre-agnostic in search of a reasonably all-ages friendly comic with a strong female lead and a humorous bent to the dialogue.

Also worth noting is the quality of Naifeh’s art on this issue. I’m only really familiar with his work on Courtney Crumrin so I don’t know if he’s revealed the particular style showcased in this issue in other publications, but this is perhaps Naifeh’s most impressive comics art to date. His ability as a storyteller is well-established and recognized, but the rendering he applies to this issue, particularly in the two double-page sequences (the first of which is reproduced in the preview gallery below), wouldn’t be out of place in one of Dark Horse’s actual Conan books.

An excellent series debut all around, worth seeking out when the title formally launches this summer.

Southern Bastards #1 (Image Comics; $3.50 print, $2.99 DRM-free digital[EDITOR’S PICK]

  • southernbastards_1Story: Jason Aaron
  • Art: Jason Latour
  • Color assist: Rico Renzi
  • Cover: Jason Latour
  • Publisher’s summary: Welcome to Craw County, Alabama, home of Boss BBQ, the state champion Runnin’ Rebs football team…and more bastards than you’ve ever seen. When you’re an angry old man like Earl Tubb, the only way to survive a place like this…is to carry a really big stick. From the acclaimed team of JASON AARON and JASON LATOUR, the same bastards who brought you Scalped and Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted, comes a southern fried crime series that’s like the Dukes of Hazzard meets the Coen Brothers… on meth.

I’ve only been to the Southern United States once in my life, and it was to attend a week-long wedding celebration in Texas, and even then I imagine that there are some who will argue that at least in modern times, Texas is its own thing as far as culture and demographics are concerned, and that it doesn’t readily fall under the colloquial definition of “The South” as a region of the country that, in the estimation of many, is still strongly defined by the legacies of the Antebellum Era and the Confederate experience.

All this is to say that my perception of The South has been colored in large part by both the formal accounting of history and the frequently unflattering portraits and outright caricatures offered by popular culture, as I imagine is the case for many Canadians and indeed, for many people whose only interaction with the land and people of “Dixie” has been by proxy.

Southern Bastards offers no less of a vicarious experience of The South, of course, but its viewpoint is from less of a remove than usual and in a certain sense more emotionally honest, as it is the work of two comics creators—writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour—who self-identify as Southerners and who hold strong views about the region, its culture, and its history. While the story of the lone hero caught in a battle against an insular community of Southern villains has been done before, it isn’t too often that the conflict has been framed as internecine, at least as far as comics are concerned: Southern Bastards protagonist Earl Tubbs is a Southerner himself, and he has returned to his hometown seemingly in search of retribution for the murder of his sheriff father by a gang of locals some forty years prior.

That the work resonates personally for Aaron and Latour is evident, both in the themes and execution of the comic itself and in the issue’s afterword. Jasper, Alabama native Aaron describes Southern Bastards as being about “a place you can love and hate and miss and fear all at the same time” while the Charlotte-born-and-raised Latour writes about his anger at “letting [the assholes you might think Southerners are] steal The South from me.”

Even without the knowledge of Aaron and Latour’s personal stake in the story however, Southern Bastards is a highly compelling read. It’s a hard-hitting modern noir at its core—we’re just one issue in but already I can see it comparing quite favorably to David Lapham’s Eisner-winning Stray Bullets and Aaron’s own critically-acclaimed work on Scalped—and it features some of the best art from Latour I’ve seen to date.

Elektra #1 (Marvel, $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • Elektra2014_01_001Story: W. Haden Blackman
  • Illustrations: Mike Del Mundo
  • Colors: Mike Del Mundo, Marco D’Alfonso
  • Cover: Mike Del Mundo
  • Publisher’s summary: Witness the beautifully violent return of the world’s deadliest assassin. A life spent in silent pain has led Elektra to the precipice of despair. As she prepares to shed her past and take her next step, everything you know about her will change! Death is no escape, but she will find her way as a new option opens up that will take Elektra to places no other Marvel character can go.
  • Click here to read our recent interview with Elektra artist Mike Del Mundo.
  • NOTE: This comic was purchased by the reviewer.

After his much-publicized departure from DC Comics’ Batwoman over the issue of creative interference and excessive editorial micromanagement, writer W. Haden Blackman has landed another high-profile gig writing Marvel’s All-New Marvel NOW! relaunch of Elektra, the first issue of which arrived in shops last week, almost ten years to the day the final issue of the previous Elektra ongoing series went on sale.

Elektra #1 doesn’t spend a lot of pages introducing (or reintroducing, for those already familiar with the character) its eponymous female lead to readers or getting them caught up on the character’s current status quo, not that it needs to. Strip away the convoluted continuity accrued over the last three decades—she was killed by Bullseye, mystically resurrected, mystically split into “good” and “evil” versions of herself, replaced by a Skrull impersonator, rejoined The Hand, etc.—and the character, as she’s been characterized in the most pivotal stories in the canon, is fairly straightforward: Elektra is a fearsome and lethal assassin who nonetheless follows an ethical (after a fashion) warrior’s code and presents an occasional emotional vulnerability, giving her a distinct anti-hero appeal.

Instead, Blackman gets right into the thick of things, efficiently laying out the terms of a new mission that will see the sai-wielding ninja pursuing the mercenary-gone-rogue Cape Crow while still providing enough characterization to help ground novice readers. It’s a promising premise for a storyline that I hope will feature more espionage-style action than superhero hijinks, as I think the former is eminently a better fit for the character.

This issue also features Shuster-winning and Eisner-nominated cover artist Mike Del Mundo in his first role as the regular artist on a marquee Marvel ongoing series, and the work does not disappoint in the least. There’s an Art Nouveau sensibility to the way Del Mundo approaches the issue’s visuals, and I was particularly impressed with the multiple, mural-like double-page spreads, which combine striking, poster-like composition with effective, if unconventional, visual storytelling. The first one, reproduced in the gallery below, artfully works with the textual exposition, with the background images encapsulating key points in Elektra’s life story thus far. The colors, by Del Mundo and co-colorist Marco D’Alfonso, provide a textural component and are a welcome departure from the sterile, highly-saturated, gradient-heavy, high-contrast palette that seems to be the standard in many of Marvel’s current titles.

Fair or not, the art in comics featuring Elektra over the years has gained a reputation for inappropriately eroticizing the character. The TV Tropes page on Elektra points out that “when [Elektra] dodges, artists usually draw her from behind to emphasize her ass. Flying kicks are drawn from the front, effectively becoming full-page crotch shots.” The cheesecake characteristic of Elektra art is something Del Mundo is intent on deemphasizing as he detailed in our recent interview, and I will say that he manages a fine balance between minimizing whatever aspects of the art may be construed (or misconstrued) as being born of the “male gaze” and portraying the virtues of the character’s physical attributes.

Conan the Avenger #1 (Dark Horse, $3.50)

  • conanta1p0Story: Fred Van Lente
  • Illustrations: Brian Ching
  • Colors: Michael Atiyeh
  • Cover: Iain McCaig
  • Publisher’s summary: Nursing his broken heart, Conan drinks himself into a stupor in the troubled city of Shumballa—until a brazen act of thievery launches the Cimmerian into a wild hunt and a supernatural adventure!

Writer Fred Van Lente has his work cut out for him on Conan the Avenger, the new Conan “maxiseries” from publisher Dark Horse Comics. Not only is he following Brian Wood’s Conan the Barbarian, which is arguably the best-received of Dark Horse’s original Conan titles since Kurt Busiek’s initial 32-issue run on the 2004 Conan series, but, as assistant editor Aaron Walker notes in the afterword, Van Lente is also drawing from a fragmentary Robert E. Howard story as his source. In almost ten years of reading Dark Horse’s various original Conan titles, I’ve found that many (though not all) of the publisher’s best Conan comics have been those that use complete Howard stories as their inspiration.

That said, I wasn’t bringing any of that baggage into my reading of Conan the Avenger #1, and I was determined to evaluate it on its own merits. What Van Lente has crafted here in terms of story is a perfectly competent “entry-point” issue, reasonably summarizing the post-Conan the Barbarian status quo for readers coming in cold (it is for their sake that I won’t go into further detail regarding this topic, in case any one reading this review is “tradewaiting” Conan the Barbarian) without descending into tiresome exposition, while also kicking off a new storyline in the traditional, trouble-finds-Conan-as-he-ventures-into-a-new-locale manner.

I wouldn’t call this issue an ideal introduction to Dark Horse’s original Conan comics—I think Busiek and Cary Nord’s Conan #1 or Wood and Becky Cloonan’s Conan the Barbarian #1 are better choices in this regard—but it gets the job done. For the hardcore comic geeks out there, there’s also a little “Easter egg” that seems to reference the 1986 Marvel graphic novel Dr. Strange: Into Shamballah, although I have no idea if this was Van Lente’s idea or artist Brian Ching’s (or even colorist Michael Atiyeh’s).

Speaking of Ching, he puts in solid work on this issue, with a style that is somewhere between the look of Dan Panosian’s two-issue run on Conan: The Road of Kings and Vasilis Lolos’ contributions to the “Border Fury” story-arc on Conan the Barbarian.

Justice League United #0 (DC, $3.99)

  • JLUnited_0_001Story: Jeff Lemire
  • Illustrations: Mike McKone
  • Colors: Marcelo Maiolo
  • Cover: Mike McKone with Gabe Eltaeb
  • Publisher’s summary: Top comics writer Jeff Lemire teams with superstar artist Mike McKone for the all-new monthly series JUSTICE LEAGUE UNITED, starring the new team of powerful heroes Earth calls Justice League Canada! In the aftermath of FOREVER EVIL, Adam Strange is caught up in an adventure across the far reaches of the cosmos that will unite an unexpected team of heroes including Supergirl, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Stargirl, Martian Manhunter and Animal Man – but if they’re on the team, who exactly is Canadian? Plus: Don’t miss the debut of a new Canadian hero who will have a huge effect on the group! 
  • NOTE: This comic was purchased by the reviewer.

I haven’t read a “New 52″ DC comic since Dial H was canceled last summer, and to be honest, the only reason I picked up Justice League United #0 was because I was interested in seeing what Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist Jeff Lemire (The Underwater Welder, Trillium) would do with his much-publicized Cree superhero Equinox, whose development we’ve been following in the News Round-up in past months.

As it turns out, Equinox is only briefly glimpsed in this issue (the sequence shown in the preview gallery below contains the bulk of her entire appearance), and most of the comic is actually devoted to introducing readers to what is likely to be the “New 52″ version of galaxy-trotting superhero Adam Strange. I liked what I saw of Lemire’s treatment of Equinox and her civilian alter-ego Miyahbin, though, and the use of the word “ever” as a catch-all superlative reads as particularly authentic in terms of modern First Nations youth vernacular, from what I can tell. Lemire has previously acknowledged that issues could arise from “a white guy from Toronto” telling the story of a female First Nations youth despite his research and his efforts to incorporate feedback from First Nations communities in designing Equinox, but I am reasonably confident that, at least in his hands, Equinox will be a character that any superhero comics reader, of First Nations descent or otherwise, can get behind.

Artist Mike McKone turns in some real impressive visuals in this issue and it is far and away better than his work on the disappointing Avengers: Endless Wartime from both a storytelling and rendering standpoint. Working with a writer who is also an accomplished artist in Lemire might have something to do with the comparative improvements in the former, but the latter is all McKone, I would think. Given his pre-Avengers: Endless Wartime portfolio, I suspect that he was probably under instructions to draw the faces of the protagonists of Avengers: Endless Wartime as generically as possible as a preemptive safeguard against allegations of unlicensed likeness appropriation from actors involved in the various films based on Marvel Comics properties, because he is definitely working with a wider variety of facial structures and expressions in this issue.

All in all, Justice League United #0 is a sufficiently entertaining read, although at this point, I’m not yet sold on following the series beyond this inaugural five-part “Justice League Canada” story-arc, not because I have misgivings about the quality of this issue—I don’t—but because I’m really more invested in the specific creators and characters involved rather than in what’s going on with DC’s superhero comics at large.

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