Today’s First Impression features an extended review of Copperhead #1 as well as capsule reviews of Grimm Tales of Terror #3, Wild’s End # 1, Prophet Strikefile #1, and Teen Dog #1.
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.
Copperhead #1 (Image Comics, $3.50 print/$2.99 digital)
- Story: Jay Faerber
- Illustrations: Scott Godlewski
- Colors: Ron Riley
- Cover: Scott Godlewski with Ron Riley
- Copperhead created by: Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski
- Research assist: Amy Condit
- Availability: 10 September 2014
- Publisher’s summary: Welcome to Copperhead, a grimy mining town on the edge of a backwater planet. Single mom Clara Bronson is the new sheriff, and on her first day she’ll have to contend with a resentful deputy, a shady mining tycoon, and a family of alien hillbillies. And did we mention the massacre? Writer JAY FAERBER and the art team of SCOTT GODLEWSKI & RON RILEY bring you this gritty 24th Century Western with an extra-long first issue for the regular price of $3.50!
I love “space westerns.” Through the 1980s, I watched The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers and BraveStarr on television just like Copperhead writer and co-creator Jay Faerber, who admits to loving the former and thinking the latter to be “dumb” in Copperhead #1’s backmatter message to readers. It can be argued that the space western’s appeal is no different from the “conflict-driven melodrama in space” draw of more conventional space opera, but I think there’s more to it than that. When executed well, the trick of taking the (overly) familiar staples of American frontier fiction and placing it in a new context (or interpreting it through a different cultural lens) can highlight what makes the western so appealing in the first place, as evident in the supernatural western of Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Sixth Gun and Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark’s The Guns of Shadow Valley, the dystopian future western of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West and Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s Wasteland, and the space western-by-way-manga of Yasuhiro Nightow’s Trigun. These atypical spins on the western refresh the romance of the pioneer hero and remind us of the danger of life at the outer edge of civilization and beyond.
In this regard Faerber and co-creator/artist Scott Godlewski’s Copperhead #1 succeeds. In the comic, they serve up elements seen in many conventional westerns—a new sheriff in town, a disgruntled veteran deputy whose trust the sheriff must earn, an indigenous people disenfranchised, a sneering tycoon would-be villain, and caricatures of the usual frontier low-lifes—in interesting ways that reflect contemporary themes.
The new sheriff is a woman (a single mother at that), and it is clear in the issue’s opening pages—see the preview gallery below—that Sheriff Clara Brunson isn’t the type of female comics protagonist who will need rescuing by some dashing space cowboy.
There’s also the veteran deputy, who harbors hostility towards the sheriff because of what he sees as discrimination against his kind (he is an alien, although technically speaking it is Sheriff Brunson who is the alien since the deputy is a member of the marginalized sentient humanoid species native to the planet) and the putative villain employs artificial humans (whether they are clones or androids, it’s not yet entirely clear at this point) who themselves seem to be subject to some sort of prejudice from humans.
That said, Copperhead isn’t just about the subversion of genre conventions or their appropriation and reconfiguration as science-fiction metaphors. There is a good old-fashioned murder mystery in play here to go with a healthy dose of gunslinging action and a touch of family drama, as well as some effective contextual comedy. That sounds like a terribly disparate mix of ingredients, but Faerber handles it well in this issue and he has the résumé to inspire the reader’s confidence that he can maintain the coherent tone through the genre-bending series’ life—his superhero soap opera Noble Causes and its more action-oriented spin-off Dynamo 5 both went on to have lengthy publication runs and he’s written everything from Marvel’s Generation X, DC’s The Titans, the modern noir comic Point of Impact, and multiple episodes of television’s Star-Crossed and Ringer.
Arizona-based illustrator Scott Godlewski is an unfamiliar name to me—the most recent interior comics art credits listed in his Comic Book Database entry prior to Copperhead are for Codebreakers and Dracula: The Company of Monsters, both launched in 2010 by BOOM! Studios. I am assuming that he found more profitable work as an artist outside comics or that he was otherwise occupied in the interim, because publishers have no excuse for passing on an artist of his skill level all these years. I know it might sound lazy to say that his work on this comic compares favorably with that of East of West‘s Nick Dragotta, but it isn’t just the similar future western conceit that makes puts me in mind of the Eisner-nominated artist. Like Dragotta, Godlewski works with a clean and vibrant line, knows when to mix up his perspectives and distances (but not to the detriment of the storytelling’s clarity), stays on-model (a somewhat underrated ability in today’s comics, I find), and has a gift for drawing sprawling, stark desert vistas. Colorist Ron Riley’s more muted color choices also complement the desert planet setting well. This is a very good-looking comic, all told.
In a June 2014 promo piece, Saga‘s multiple Eisner and Harvey Award-winning writer and co-creator Brian K. Vaughan called Copperhead “the best Image debut of the year.” I’m not ready to go that far just yet—the comic faces strong competition for that distinction in Southern Bastards, Wayward, The Fade Out, Trees, Stray Bullets: Killers, The Field, Undertow, Starlight, Genius, and The Fuse in what is shaping up to be another great year for the creator-owned comics publisher. It does have a legit claim to that title, though, and I very much look forward to seeing where the creative team takes Sheriff Brunson’s story.
Grimm Tales of Terror #3 (Zenescope, $2.99): There are real creative and commercial merits to the use of “one-and-done” standalone issues in an ongoing comic and it’s great that Zenescope has seen fit to apply that approach in Grimm Tales of Terror, the publisher’s new horror title. After a promising start however, the series falters in this latest installment—”Don’t Turn on the Lights,” a story penned by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco and scripted by Meredith Finch—featuring gruesome serial murders in a college women’s residence complex. Grimm Tales of Terror is inspired by the pre-Code horror comics so the use of standbys of that era and genre—the gore and PG-13-ish titillation—aren’t really a problem (it would be a problem if a comic whose creators cite the EC horror comics of the 1950s as major influences DIDN’T have gore and titillation). Rather, the real issue here is one of narrative craft: The story’s red herring with regards to the identity of the serial killer is telegraphed, the revelation of the true serial killer lacks build-up and comes off as rather arbitrary, and a parallel side-narrative of a sleazy professor taking advantage of female students struggling in his class feels similarly thrown-together. It’s competently plotted in the sense that the story doesn’t contradict its own internal logic, but the execution isn’t particularly entertaining. The same can be said for artist Milton Estevam’s illustrations—it’s serviceable stuff, but only just. The good thing about the “one-and-done” standalone story format of Grimm Tales of Terror is that the missteps of this issue won’t necessarily carry over to the next one. Here’s hoping for a better outing from the team next time.
Prophet Strikefile #1 (of 2; Image Comics, $3.99): Not so much a conventional comic as it is an illustrated handbook-style guide to the world and characters of Brandon Graham’s acclaimed far-future sci-fi version of Prophet, the first issue of Prophet Strikefile succeeds in summarizing and making accessible the historical backdrop of the recently-concluded mainline Prophet series and setting the table for new readers for the upcoming Prophet: Earth War six-issue miniseries that will bookend Graham’s run with the Extreme Studios property. Strikefile isn’t just for readers unfamiliar with the mythos of Graham’s Prophet, however: Followers of the series will appreciate the larger story and context laid out cleanly and clearly by Graham and series collaborator Simon Roy and the comic’s many detailed and inventive illustrations by Graham, Roy, and an eclectic cast of art contributors that includes Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues, All-New Ultimates), Grim Wilkins (Ellipses), Sandra Lanz (Luci’s Let Down), Joseph Bergin III (Prophet, Western Tales of Terror), and many others.
Teen Dog #1 (of 8; BOOM! Box, $3.99): Comparisons to The Simpsons‘ one-off character Poochie will be inevitable when readers encounter Teen Dog, the eponymous canine protagonist of the newest BOOM! Box limited series from Melbourne, Australia-based cartoonist Jake Lawrence. Teen Dog is (not-quite) too-cool-for-school—a skateboarding, pizza-scarfing, indoor sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphic dog who gets by despite seemingly being the shiftless type. The comic is composed primarily of vignettes highlighting Teen Dog’s relationship with his best friend Mari and the slice-of-life comedy in their high school. Developed from a series of one-page comics Lawrence posted irregularly over the past year on Tumblr, Teen Dog does have the feel of a collection of strips but this first issue functions well enough as an introduction and a character sketch. Lawrence’s art has a quirky charm to it and I did find myself smiling throughout the reading experience. I will admit to feeling a little ambivalent about the issue’s amount of content and lack of a firm narrative through line, however. Sitting somewhere between the gag-a-day webcomic and the bound comic strip collection in terms of volume, Teen Dog #1 comes off as a rather slight read when considered as an issue in a monthly title. That says more about my conventional expectations of the different comics formats than anything inherently wrong with the craft of its contents, though.
Wild’s End #1 (of 6; BOOM! Studios, $2.99): Compared to Teen Dog, Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard’s Wild’s End is looking to be more my speed as far as monthly talking animal comics go. The first three-quarters of the comic paint a picture of a quaint English village populated by quaint English caricatures engrossed in their little non-problem problems and minor intrigues. But that’s before a meteor lands and introduces what appears to be a War of the Worlds-style extraterrestrial threat and the story takes a radical turn from a charming animals-as-people story to a horror-tinged, sci-fi yarn (although even then, a second reversal in tone would not be wholly unexpected). Strip away the novelty of the rather idiosyncratic anthropomorphic animal character design choices taken by the creators, however, and Wild’s End #1 still stands firmly on its own merits as engrossing genre entertainment. Abnett and Culbard do a masterful job of disarming the reader and evoking a genuine sense of surprise and suspense—all the faffing about in the issue’s earlier portion builds atmosphere, develops characters and endears them to the reader, and lays the groundwork for the twist to come later in the comic. Even when hinted at by the cover and the solicitations, it still comes as a real shock when it happens. I do wonder if the creative team is working on some sort of transtextual narrative here: the first issue of Abnett and Culbard’s current Dark Horse Comics series, Dark Ages (reviewed here), has a similar genre-bending, unlikely alien invasion conceit at work.