The GeeksverseFirst Impressions | Groo vs. Conan, Ragnarök, Low, Grimm Tales of Terror, and more

First Impressions | Groo vs. Conan, Ragnarök, Low, Grimm Tales of Terror, and more
Published on Thursday, July 31, 2014 by
Today’s First Impression feature looks at Groo vs. Conan #1, Low #1, Ragnarök #1, Grimm Tales of Terror #1, Deep Gravity #1, and the double-sized Aphrodite IX/Cyber Force one-shot. 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.

Groo vs. Conan #1 (of 4; Dark Horse, $3.50) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • groovconan1p0Story: Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragonés
  • Illustrations: Sergio Aragonés, Thomas Yeates
  • Colors: Tom Luth
  • Cover: Sergio Aragonés, Thomas Yeates
  • Publisher’s summary: It had to happen: The most heroic warrior in history meets the stupidest as Robert E. Howard’s immortal Conan the Barbarian crosses swords with Sergio Aragonés’s Groo the Wanderer in Groo vs. Conan #1. This four-issue miniseries was concocted by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés, aided by illustrator Thomas Yeates and colorist Tom Luth. Will Conan annihilate Groo? Will Groo turn out to be the man who can defeat Conan? We’ll see.

2014 marks Sergio Aragonés’ 51st year as a working cartoonist. Over the course of half a century, the Spanish-born, Mexico-raised Aragonés has won recognition from just about every major comics and cartooning award-giving body in the United States: He’s a nine-time(!) recipient of the Harvey Awards Special Award for Humor, he’s received numerous accolades from the National Cartoonists Society in various categories (including the prestigious Reuben Award in 1996), and he has bagged eight Eisner Awards, either by himself or as part of a creative team—four for Best Humor Publication, one for Best Writer/Artist (Humor), one for Best Short Story, a Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, and induction in 2002 to the Eisner Hall of Fame. Even if we ignore those awards, his influence on modern cartooning is indisputable and he remains one of the masters of the art of pantomime in comics.

If the above paragraph hasn’t made it obvious, yes, I am an unabashed Aragonés fan. I grew up reading his worldless “A Mad Look at… ” gag strips and the similarly silent “Mad Marginals” and “Drawn-out Dramas” cartoons in MAD magazine and tried to read as much Groo as I could as a kid despite how difficult it was to get a hold of issues in my hometown back in the day. Groo vs. Conan is definitely a comic for established Aragonés enthusiasts. Oh, I have no doubt that there are Conan fans out there who have been waiting for something like this to go down, but this is really more of an encore performance for Mark Evanier and Aragonés, featuring their most popular comics creation in a gloriously absurd crossover. Groo vs. Conan uses variations of many of the same old jokes and gags from the classic Groo comics, and Evanier and Aragonés make sure to point this out to the reader. The self-deprecation may fly over the heads of those unfamiliar with previous Groo material but for returning readers, this is perfect “comfort humor.”

I don’t want to paint the picture that Groo vs. Conan is purely an exercise in nostalgia comedy, though. Obviously, the blend of Aragonés’ cartoonish art and Thomas Yeates’ more naturalistic renderings gives the project a distinct look, but beyond that, the comic has a level of social commentary that is fairly unusual given that the satire in Groo has almost always been low-key, especially when contrasted with Aragonés work on MAD. The “real-world” framing sequences in the comic featuring cartoon versions of the comic’s creators address topics like gentrification and the police response to protests, themes mirrored in the framed story of Groo caught in-between the supporters of a long-standing village bakery and the government official intent on razing it to the ground to make way for a royal palace. Even as Evanier and Aragonés poke fun at themselves for recycling gags and the cash-in conceit of the crossover, they still manage to offer something new.

Low #1 (Image Comics, $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • Low_01Story: Rick Remender
  • Art: Greg Tocchini
  • Cover: Greg Tocchini
  • Publisher’s summary: In the far distant future, the sun’s premature expansion has irradiated Earth, sending humanity to the lowest depths of the seas, hidden within radiation-shielded cities, while probes scour the universe for inhabitable worlds to relocate to. After tens of thousands of years, a single probe returns, crashing on Earth’s surface, a now-alien place no human has seen for many millennia. Frequent collaborators RICK REMENDER (BLACK SCIENCE, Uncanny Avengers) and GREG TOCCHINI (Last Days of American Crime, Uncanny X-Force) dive into an aquatic sci-fi/fantasy tale following two teams from the last remaining cities undersea as they race to the most unexpected alien world of all-the surface of Earth. Special introductory issue features 30 full pages of painted art!
    In the far distant future, the sun’s premature expansion has irradiated Earth, sending humanity to the lowest depths of the seas, hidden within radiation-shielded cities, while probes scour the universe for inhabitable worlds to relocate to. After tens of thousands of years, a single probe returns, crashing on Earth’s surface, a now-alien place no human has seen for many millennia. Frequent collaborators RICK REMENDER (BLACK SCIENCE, Uncanny Avengers) and GREG TOCCHINI (Last Days of American Crime, Uncanny X-Force) dive into an aquatic sci-fi/fantasy tale following two teams from the last remaining cities undersea as they race to the most unexpected alien world of all—the surface of Earth. Special introductory issue features 30 full pages of painted art! – See more at: http://imagecomics.com/store/comics/low-1#sthash.9rZJM0Ta.dpuf
    In the far distant future, the sun’s premature expansion has irradiated Earth, sending humanity to the lowest depths of the seas, hidden within radiation-shielded cities, while probes scour the universe for inhabitable worlds to relocate to. After tens of thousands of years, a single probe returns, crashing on Earth’s surface, a now-alien place no human has seen for many millennia. Frequent collaborators RICK REMENDER (BLACK SCIENCE, Uncanny Avengers) and GREG TOCCHINI (Last Days of American Crime, Uncanny X-Force) dive into an aquatic sci-fi/fantasy tale following two teams from the last remaining cities undersea as they race to the most unexpected alien world of all—the surface of Earth. Special introductory issue features 30 full pages of painted art! – See more at: http://imagecomics.com/store/comics/low-1#sthash.9rZJM0Ta.dpuf

Rick Remender reunites with his The Last Days of American Crime collaborator Greg Tocchini in Low, their new comic published by Image Comics. The combination of the science-fiction premise and the painted art will perhaps encourage readers to draw comparisons with Remender, Matteo Scalera, and Dean White’s dimension-hopping action-adventure Black Science (first issue reviewed here) but that’s really where the similarities end. Low is a story about the world nearing its fiery end as the sun marches towards its red giant form and the people who continue to carve out an existence for themselves in an underwater society, despite the seeming futility of it all. Remender is one of the best active writers in comics when it comes to delivering “hook-y” premises for his comics—the capsule descriptions for Fear Agent, Strange Girl, Deadly Class, the previously-mentioned Black Science, and even his work for Marvel Comics like the “Franken-Castle” story-arc in The Punisher just demand further investigation by the casual browser—although he sometimes falters in the extended execution.

Even with the Low‘s high-concept grounding, Remender makes sure to emphasize character development. Much of the comic is devoted to fleshing out the relationships between the scientist Stel, her navigator husband Johl, and their three children. In contrast to the first issue of Black Science, the drama and emotion precipitated by the cliffhanger ending to Low #1 feels earned, not forced. Remender also does a great job of sprinkling the dialogue with just enough expository bits to keep the far-future setting from becoming confusing.

It is Greg Tocchini’s visuals, however, that will likely stick with readers and compel them to come back next month. Like Matteo Scalera and Dean White’s artistic contributions to Black Science (or even Juanjo Guarnido’s work on Blacksad), the Brazil-based Tocchini’s art on this comic is making me reconsider many of my long-held biases against painted comics art. A huge part of that is due to the fact that Tocchini’s painted rendering works with the linework instead of overwhelming it. Brilliant stuff that’s worth the cover price all by itself.

Ragnarök #1 (IDW; $3.99) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • Ragnarok_01-pr-001Story & illustration: Walt Simonson
  • Colors: Laura Martin
  • Cover: Walt Simonson with Laura Martin
  • Publisher’s summary: Ragnarök… the Twilight of the Gods in Norse mythology… the destruction of the Nine Worlds.  And now, three hundred years later, the birth of vengeance. Walter Simonson returns to comics in a BIG way with an all-new series… and doing what he does best! Walter Simonson is one of the most acclaimed and respected creators in comics. He has done defining runs on Thor, Manhunter, Star Slammers, Elric, Orion and more. Now, in his first creator-owned series in 20 years, he brings his tremendous artistic arsenal to a brand new world… the twilit world of Ragnarök!

I’ve been looking forward to reading Walt Simonson’s Ragnarök since it was first announced earlier this year, seeing as it marks his return to tackling Norse mythology in comics. Simonson’s three-year, 45-issue stint on Marvel’s Thor during the mid-1980s is perhaps the quintessential Thor run by any creator: The writer-artist combined his deep appreciation and knowledge of actual Norse mythology with the freewheeling, wildly imaginative, almost psychedelic approach to the medium that readers had come to associate with the superhero comics of the previous decade.

Ragnarök, at least with this first issue, seems to be a bit more traditional in its treatment of Norse mythology than the more outlandish portions of Simonson’s lauded Thor run—there are no superheroes here. That doesn’t mean that Simonson is content to regurgitate portions of the Edda in comic book form, however. There’s a lot going on here: Ragnarök is a post-apocalyptic tale, if you will, set three centuries after the death of the Norse pantheon and revolving around the dark elf assassin Bryjna and her mercenary mission to kill “a dead god.” The pacing and framing of the narrative also calls to mind Western genre fiction and film, with Bryjna serving as a distaff version of the wandering gunfighter. For all the density of its allusions, Ragnarök isn’t impenetrable: At its heart, this is still a fun bit of action-adventure that can be enjoyed even without detailed knowledge of the supporting mythology.

Simonson’s Sergio Toppi-meets-Jack Kirby art is worth noting, too. Simonson is that rare comics artist who can balance a predilection for “noodling” and illustrative detail with clear-but-dynamic storytelling and his character design choices, while perhaps not for everyone, are always interesting.

For those fans of Norse mythology-inspired comics sick of the somewhat contrived controversy over Marvel’s “Lady Thor,” Ragnarök provides a welcome antidote.

Grimm Tales of Terror #1 (Zenescope, $2.99)

  • Grimm_Tales of Terror_001-001Story: Ralph Tedesco
  • Illustrations: Antonio Bifulco
  • Colors: Marco Lesko
  • Cover: Wes Huffor with Ylenia Di Napoli (Cover D variant as shown)
  • Publisher’s summary: Inspired by Tales From the Crypt, Twilight Zone, and Creep Show, Zenescope goes back to its roots of horror as the publisher known for re-inventing classics delves into an entirely new bag of tricks. From Poe to Lovecraft to brand new Fables, these tales of terror are sure to creep you out in a whole new way!

Writer Ralph Tedesco presents his own unique spin on the Edgar Allan Poe classic “The Tell-Tale Heart” in Grimm Tales of Terror #1, the premiere issue of Zenescope Entertainment’s new ongoing horror series. Tedesco’s use of a frame story is reminiscent of what horror comics legend Richard Corben has been doing in his most recent Poe adaptations, although given the inherent structure of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” what we’re really seeing here is a frame story-within-a-frame story.  It also seems to me that this framing narrative is intended to tie in the stories of Grimm Tales of Terror with some larger context involving the “shared universe” of Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales-branded titles. It’s an interesting approach that has me intrigued with where Tedesco is going with this, despite my relative lack of familiarity with Zenescope’s output. That said, it didn’t strike me that a knowledge of other Zenescope titles is a prerequisite for appreciating this comic on its own terms, although it would probably serve to further illuminate the twist Tedesco has applied to the source material—readers coming in thinking that this is just a straight-up modern retelling of “The Tell-Tale Heart” will find out that it is anything but and would be poorly served dismissing it as such.

Italian artist Antonio Bifulco submits some solidly-rendered art in this issue, although there are some awkward storytelling sequences here and there: One particular scene toward’s the issue’s end comes off as especially disjointed because of the lack of a proper establishing shot.

Deep Gravity #1 (of 4; Dark Horse; $3.99)

  • deepgravity1p0Story: Mike Richardson, Gabriel Hardman, Corinna Bechko
  • Illustrations: Fernando Baldó
  • Colors: Nick Filardi
  • Cover: Gabriel Hardman with Matthew Wilson
  • Publisher’s summary: He didn’t get onto the most lucrative interstellar mission for the money—Paxon wants to be reunited with the woman he loves. But his high-stakes journey takes him to a savage world full of the galaxy’s most dangerous game, where the gravity can turn your bones to powder.

“Hard science-fiction” has never been all that popular a genre in comics, especially when compared to “sci-fi” or space opera—off the top of my head, I can only think of John Byrne’s The High Ways and Doomsday.1 as recent examples—so it’s doubly satisfying to come across one that not only represents the form, but is also sufficiently entertaining and engaging, independent of genre expectations.

What sets Deep Gravity apart from the more common sci-fi/space opera comics is Mike Richardson, Gabriel Hardman, and Corinna Bechko’s attention to scientific detail. The danger posed by radiation and the higher gravity of the exoplanet Poseidon (which is more massive than Earth) plays a huge role in the plot—in fact, for lack of a better term, environmental hazards are actually the “villains” of this issue, which is an especially refreshing deviation from the usual conflicts that define modern escapist fiction. If there’s a weakness to the narrative, it’s in protagonist Steven Paxon, who shows flickers of being an insufferable sentimentalist in the issue’s romantic subplot. Flawed leads are always more interesting, of course, but the way he’s written, he occasionally comes off as more pathetic than sympathetic.

Fernando Baldó’s straightforward, naturalistic art serves the tone of the story well, even during sequences where exotic alien life forms make their appearance. I don’t know if he’s responsible for the alien creature designs (the inside cover lists Nick James as the “designer,” although I don’t know if this refers to the publication design or the character/creature designs), but in any case, they look reasonably believable as organisms that evolved in an Earth-like but still alien environment.

Aphrodite IX/Cyber Force one-shot (Image Comics. $5.99)

  • AIX_CFStory: Matt Hawkins
  • Art: Stjepan Sejic
  • Additional story: Joey Cruz
  • Additional illustrations: Carlos Rodriguez
  • Additional colors: Bill Farmer
  • Cover: Stjepan Sejic
  • Publisher’s summary: A double-sized crossover event unlike any before! Two teams, seven centuries apart, united by one woman’s diabolical plan. The Chairwoman from CYBER FORCE had a plan to recreate the world in her children’s image. Things didn’t go as planned. Featuring the present day team of Cyber Force and the 28th century Aphrodite IX, this story lays the foundation for the new comic series IXth GENERATION, launching in 2015.

Writer Matt Hawkins attempts a fairly ambitious tack in Top Cow Entertainment’s Aphrodite IX/Cyber Force, using the one-shot as a lead-in for next year’s IXth Generation whilst also employing it as an impromptu primer for those unaware of the current goings-on in the Aphrodite IX (a.k.a. Aphrodite IX: Rebirth) and Cyber Force (a.k.a. Cyber Force: Rebirth) series. The comic succeeds on that score, but does so with all the subtlety of a street corner preacher: The first dozen pages of the the issue’s main story consists largely of pure exposition via narration and flashback. It’s a necessary evil given the comic’s remit, but intercutting these sequences with some more dynamic bits or having the exposition run concurrently with even just a perfunctory, conflict-driven, action-oriented subplot would have made things seem less like a slog. As it was, the 22-page lead story felt like a “double-sized” issue by itself, when in actuality, the one-shot reaches its 48-page count because of the addition of pin-ups, chapter break pages, a six-page bonus story entitled “Where’s Sol?” from Top Cow Talent Search writer runner-up Joey Cruz, and a comprehensive seven-page backmatter text section detailing everything from the publication history of various Aphrodite IX and Cyber Force titles over the past two decades to digressions on dark matter and immortality. In terms of written content, I actually found this backmatter section to be the most engaging part of the issue.

Stjepan Sejic continues to display his revised approach to Top Cow art in this issue. Gone are the patently digitally-rendered textures and stiff figures that used to typify his earlier work, replaced by a looser, more organic, “traditionally illustrated” aesthetic (although it is almost surely the result of a digital work process just the same). It’s a very welcome change for a veteran artist who continues to challenge himself with every outing. Still, it’s not the best work he’s produced this month. Those readers whose budgets will only allow them to pick up one double-sized comic featuring Sejic’s art are advised to pick up Death Vigil #1 (reviewed here) instead.

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