The GeeksverseFirst Impressions | The Squidder, Death Vigil, Black Market, Dark Engine, and Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles

First Impressions | The Squidder, Death Vigil, Black Market, Dark Engine, and Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles
Published on Sunday, July 20, 2014 by
Today’s First Impression feature looks at The Squidder #1, Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles #1, Death Vigil #1, Black Market #1, and Dark Engine #1. Click through for our reviews and preview galleries. 

First Impressions is our (more-or-less) regular and largely spoiler-free look at first issues, one-shots, and other “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.

The Squidder #1 (of 4; IDW, $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • Squidder_01-pr-001Story & art: Ben Templesmith
  • Cover: Ben Templesmith
  • Publisher’s summary: This all-new four-issue series finds an old soldier from a forgotten war in a post-apocalyptic world that has left him behind. He was one of the last of the legendary Squidder Legions. Can a discarded relic with a death wish and a rebellious Squid priestess overthrow humanity’s tentacled alien overlords? Ben Templesmith returns to his roots to finally do the tentacle/Cthulhu-orientated book he’s always promised! The Squidder mixes action, horror, science fiction, and fantasy elements with a touch of Squidly destruction.

The first issue of Ben Templesmith’s new post-apocalyptic action-horror miniseries The Squidder is a must-read for anyone out there looking for an instructive example of efficient and effective in-story exposition for comics. Providing readers with enough background information so that they can quickly get their bearings in an entirely new fictional world within the space of a single issue is always a challenging task, but Templesmith makes it look easy with the way he discreetly weaves exposition and genre cues into the dialogue and first-person narration. The writing avoids the pitfalls of being overly verbose or overwhelming in its descriptive scope—Templesmith trusts his readers to be smart enough to fill in the context—and the result is a comic that never gets bogged down by the writer bringing the narrative to a screeching halt just to explain why things are the way they are.

The art sees the 30 Days of Night co-creator and 44FLOOD art collective co-founder in fine form, although I will say that while I personally enjoy looking at his rendering, the style, somewhat reminiscent of Ashley Wood’s, may hold less appeal for readers who prefer more traditional-looking comics art. Particularly worth noting is Templesmith’s use of complementary accents to break up the analogous color design of the pages during particularly pivotal panels or high-action sequences. It’s a flashy technique but it doesn’t fall into gimmickry as it is used judiciously and overall, it aids in the visual storytelling rather than detracts from it. This is one of the most visually striking new comics I’ve read so far this month.

Scratch the surface of the book’s post-Cthulhu invasion occupation conceit to examine what’s been revealed of the Squidder’s story so far and it doesn’t seem especially groundbreaking—he’s a bitter, tortured old soldier who’s been convinced to take on another mission, one which may not be what it seems to be on the surface—but as we discussed in our most recent Leaving Proof article, excellence in execution trumps novelty any day of the week.

Death Vigil #1 (of 8; Image Comics, $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • DeathVigil_01Story & art: Stjepan Sejic
  • Cover: Stjepan Sejic
  • Publisher’s summary: Gifted? Join the Death Vigil in their ongoing war against the ever-growing power of the Primordial Enemy! The only catch is you have to die first. Become a corporeal immortal Death Knight and obtain reality-altering weaponry in the never-ending battle between good and evil.

In terms of its basic concept, Death Vigil reminds me a bit of certain manga titles, primarily because of its Death Knight protagonists, personifications of Death, similar to the shinigami seen in Tite Kubo’s Bleach and Atsushi Okubo’s Soul Eater. And just like those two titles, in Death Vigil creator Stjepan Sejic has opted to take a somewhat less serious approach to his portrayal of the supernatural and the occult. Death Vigil isn’t an out-and-out comedy, but the levity in the dialogue and the characters’ self-awareness are a welcome counterpoint to the comic’s action and violence.

I’ve grown to respect and admire Sejic’s skills as an artist over the years, primarily because of what I’ve seen of his personal work on deviantART, but I’ve just never been able to get into his published comics portfolio. A big part of that is because Sejic has mostly worked on titles featuring Top Cow Entertainment’s in-house superhero/quasi-superhero properties, a stable of characters for whom I don’t have a lot of affinity. An issue, too, is that for a time, Sejic employed what I would describe as an over-rendered style of digital illustration dependent on all manner of filters, effects, and textures, and it was a style that, in my opinion, resulted in figures that appeared pre-posed and stiff, occasionally veering into uncanny valley territory.

Those barriers to my enjoyment of his previous comics work don’t exist in Death Vigil #1, the extra-sized (45 story pages in all) debut of the eight-issue miniseries written, illustrated, and colored by the Croatian artist. For one thing, Death Vigil features what appears to be an all-original setting and new characters divorced from the larger Top Cow Universe. More importantly however, Death Vigil has Sejic using an organic-looking art style more reminiscent of his approach to the visuals on his and his wife Linda Luksic Sejic’s popular erotica/romantic comedy webcomic Sunstone than his previous material for Top Cow. By cutting down on the extraneous rendering detail, Sejic has been able to focus more on visual storytelling, panel composition, and infusing his figures with personality, and Death Vigil is so much the better for it. Despite some relatively lengthy talking head sequences, the comic is interesting to look at throughout, and the over-the-top fight scenes that punctuate the book are worth the price of admission by themselves.

Black Market #1 (of 4; BOOM! Studios; $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • BlackMarket01_CoverAStory: Frank J. Barbiere
  • Illustrations: Victor Santos
  • Colors: Adam Metcalfe
  • Cover: Victor Santos
  • Publisher’s summary: Ray Willis is a broken man, a disgraced medical examiner making ends meet by preparing corpses at a funeral parlor. His scientific genius is being wasted… that is, until his estranged criminal brother Denny shows up on his doorstep, supposedly cleaned up and proposing a once-in-a-lifetime partnership to cure not just cancer, but all disease. The catch? It exists within the DNA of superheroes.

A half-dozen pages into Black Market #1 and I thought I was in for another tired “superhero deconstruction” tale. “Great,” I thought, “now Frank Barbiere’s taking his whack at the Kingdom Come piñata.” By the issue’s end, however, I’d come to appreciate how Barbiere, in the span of some 20 or so pages, had spun what initially looked like just another navel-gazing postmodern capes-and-tights book into a combination heist/medical thriller/superhero comic. This was one instance where I was grateful that I was too busy to scan the associated marketing materials before reading the review copy provided by BOOM! Studios, as the book’s conflation of genres was a welcome twist that would have been undoubtedly spoiled for me had I perused the solicitation text (see the “Publisher’s summary” section above).

Black Market addresses a question whose answer I’ve been pondering for a long time, since at least the late 1980s, when I first read a classmate’s battered copy of Captain America #285 (“Letting Go”). In that J.M. DeMatteis-penned issue, Liberty Legion’s leader Jeffrey Mace, the hero formerly known as Patriot, finally succumbed to the ravages of cancer. While it was quite the affecting read at the time (my very first American comic book was Marvel Premiere #29, featuring an early appearance of the Liberty Legion), my preteen brain couldn’t get around the absurdity of it all: These superheroes lived in a world where they had access to science, technology, mutations, and magic that allowed for all sorts of wondrous things—interdimensional travel, teleportation, shrink rays, sentient machines, hyper-intelligence, telepathy, accelerated healing and near-immortality—and yet, super-geniuses like Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, Hank McCoy, Hank Pym, Forge, and Walter Langkowski couldn’t be arsed to find a cure for cancer. It just didn’t add up. Of course, as I grew older, I learned to simply enjoy superhero comics on their own terms. Bruce Wayne spending his considerable resources to promote education and combat urban poverty so as to effectively reduce Gotham City’s crime rates may be more reasonable than him farting about in dark alleys in a latex suit punching petty thugs, but it doesn’t make for engaging escapist entertainment. Still, the question would occasionally float up from the recesses of my mind every time I would come across a “very special episode”-style issue of a superhero comic intended to raise readers’ awareness of some disease or other.

In Black Market #1, Barbiere doesn’t yet answer the question of why superheroes don’t use their abilities to solve real problems instead of playing at being costumed vigilantes, but he does show an intriguing, character-driven take on the lengths normal humans will go to see if superhuman bodies can provide the cure for potentially terminal illnesses. It might come off as awfully reductive and vague talking about it in these terms, but with its reluctant criminal of an everyman protagonist, describing Black Market as Breaking Bad crossed with Bendis and Oeming’s Powers captures my experience of this first issue.

Absolutely helping make the book even more interesting beyond the premise and the character conflicts is the art by Victor Santos. I’m a fan of his work on Polar, and he does not disappoint here. The visual storytelling is, as expected, clear and unambiguous, although I will say that despite the superhero trappings, this issue doesn’t provide an opportunity for Santos to get wild with the character designs. Hopefully that will change sometime in the next three issues.

Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles #1 (Black Hearted Press, £2.95)

  • Plagued_MirandaChronicles01_001Story: Gary Chudleigh
  • Art: Tanya Roberts
  • Cover: Tanya Roberts
  • Publisher’s summary: In the near future Scotland has been left a post-apocalyptic wasteland, due to a plague that has swept the country. Ordinary people struggle to survive from day to day.  As a result of the plague witches now walk among us, hunted down and forced to stand trial by specialist freelance witch-hunters. One such witch-hunter is Thomas Mackie who, along with his talking dog Dex, hunts for only one reason—to earn enough bounty to have a better life. Things take an unexpected turn when Mackie’s latest target, Miranda Lee, blackmails him into helping her act out a dangerous plot to cure the plague once and for all.

In contrast to Ben Templesmith’s measured incorporation of exposition in the dialogue and narration in The Squidder #1 (see the lead review above), writer Gary Chudleigh’s heavy-handed approach to explication in Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles #1 reads as downright cumbersome at times. It’s especially marked in the issue’s first dozen pages or so—in one particular sequence (see the final three pages in the preview gallery below), the protagonists Thomas Mackie and Miranda Lee come off like they’re deliberately spelling things out for some unseen and unacknowledged third-party, instead of conducting a natural conversation like they’re supposed to be doing.

Further making the surfeit of expository dialogue wholly unnecessary is artist Tanya Roberts’ practiced visual storytelling craft. The former Star Wars: The Clone Wars Magazine artist’s loose, economic, hyper-stylized rendering style may not appeal to every reader, but there’s no doubting the superior clarity and dynamism of Roberts’ layouts, panel staging, and page composition, as well as her ability to convey characters’ emotion and intent through facial expressions and pose. I can’t help but feel that with her talent at the comic’s disposal, Chudleigh could have found a better solution to the problem of introducing readers to the world of Plagued than thinly-veiled “expospeak.”

If I come off like I’m harping on Plagued‘s expository dialogue in my criticism, it’s only because it’s an otherwise fun read. When Chudleigh allows his characters to simply talk (instead of serving as exposition-delivery devices), they exhibit humor, wit, and an endearing charm, and the comic’s hybrid sci-fi/fantasy conceit and post-apocalyptic Scotland setting ooze potential. A little more restraint with the word processor, a little more trust in the artist’s ability to tell a story without words, a little more faith that the reader can keep up without explicitly being served up plot and setting details, and this could be a great book.

Dark Engine #1 (Image Comics; $3.50 print, $2.99 DRM-free digital)

  • DarkEngine_01Story: Ryan Burton
  • Art: John Bivens
  • Cover: John Bivens
  • Publisher’s summary: With ribsword in hand, with gore in her curling locks, Sym has been sent to the distant past to murder her creators’ enemies. But the twisted alchemists who made Sym do not know that the engine that powers her is sentient, that it is the seed of their destruction. By blood and by fury, Sym will carve out her destiny in this new ongoing series.

The writing on Dark Engine strikes me as a bit of a throwback, style-wise, although whether or not this is intentional or merely coincidence on the part of writer Ryan Burton, I have no idea. Readers familiar with the sword-and-sorcery and sci-fi serials found in the black & white comics anthology magazines of the 1970s and early 1980s will find the tone of Dark Engine‘s dialogue and narration somewhat reminiscent of stuff like “The Starfire Saga” by Bill DuBay (from Warren’s 1984/1994 magazine), Paul Neary’s “Hunter” (from Warren’s Eerie anthology), or Roy Thomas’ work on the various serials that ran through Curtis Magazines’ The Savage Sword of Conan back in the day. What that means, for those of you unfamiliar with the references, is that Burton’s script has a bit of a flowery character to it at times. This isn’t a good or bad thing in and of itself, but some younger readers may find the purposefully exaggerated pathos in certain sequences odd or even off-putting and seemingly inappropriate to the context. Despite this observation, Dark Engine isn’t what I would call an overwritten comic—during the comic’s major action sequences, Burton wisely and selectively applies the “show, don’t tell” rule—but there are spots where the dialogue and narration threaten to draw too much attention to themselves.

John Bivens’ art, on the other hand, is definitely more accessible. Bivens loads the pages with detail, but not to the point where they appear cluttered. The big fight sequence towards the end of the issue could have used a definitive establishing shot, though. As it stands, it’s a bit more challenging than necessary for the reader to navigate, as Bivens’ “camera” starts the sequence already so close to the action.

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