In today’s First Impressions: Lang and McKinley’s survival-horror comic Plunder, Jimmie Robinson’s allegorical science-fantasy The Empty, and the belated (but nonetheless triumphant) holiday-themed return of Dean Motter’s Mister X.
In the four-issue miniseries Plunder (BOOM!/Archaia), writer Jonathan “Swifty” Lang and artist Skuds McKinley have tasked themselves with the tall order of convincing readers to empathize—or at least find some common ground—with its Somali pirate cast. To this end, Lang and McKinley take a page from Billy Ray’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for 2013’s Captain Phillips, humanizing the putative outlaw lead by highlighting the unfortunate, desperate circumstances that led him to a life of crime on the high seas.
They do such a good job in this regard that it is almost a disappointment when the comic reveals its survival-horror conceit in the cliffhanger ending of the first issue. Our pirates board what appears to be an abandoned merchant ship, only to find that they’ve stumbled upon a supernatural death trap. This isn’t the first time Lang has employed monsters in the service of a fantastical work with a strong underlying sense of socio-political commentary: His use of werewolves as a metaphor for the dehumanizing effect illegal border crossing exerts on migrants in 2010’s Feeding Ground (reviewed here) was particularly inspired. The threat on Plunder, on the other hand, seems poised to serve a more traditional horror movie role—think of the alien in John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing—although it is obviously too early in the series to tell for certain that this is the direction the element is headed, and it’s almost a sure bet that things are not as straightforward as they seem in this debut.
Plunder hints at a thoughtful, humanistic narrative about the complicated web of factors that leads young Somali men to take up arms and embark on the life of a modern-day pirate and hijacker. Here’s hoping that it isn’t totally overwhelmed by the demands of genre entertainment.
There’s a surreal, dreamlike quality to the first issue of The Empty (Image Comics), the latest from veteran comics creator Jimmie Robinson (who takes on the role of writer, illustrator, colorist, and letterer on the title). Set on what is either an alien planet or an Earth so far into the future that truly divergent human evolution has taken hold, the comic is seemingly constructed as a parable of sorts, contrasting two human(oid) societies: One a highly advanced utopian commune which apparently resorts to a regular thinning of the herd to ensure its collective prosperity, the other a moribund backwater in the grip of superstition and ignorance. Two outcasts from both societies end up together in a chance encounter and embark on a high-stakes voyage of discovery across The Empty, the wasteland between their disparate worlds.
A highlight of this first issue is Robinson’s quirky character design work and how it serves the introduction to the narrative: Lila, who is drawn like a mutant version of Margaret Keane’s big-eyed waifs, has a child-like naïveté to her appropriate for one raised in the comfort and security of a communal paradise while Tanoor, with her freakishly long arms, skin criss-crossed by scars, and constant snarl is an avatar of life mired in the day-to-day struggle for survival.
Fans of the over-the-top supervillainy of Robinson’s Bomb Queen or the shonen-style martial arts school hijinks of his Five Weapons might be put off by The Empty‘s allegorical science-fantasy conceit, but it’s a welcome display of range from a genuine comics talent. Keep an eye out for this one.
Before Bruce Timm electrified modern Western comics and animation with his design work on 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, there was award-winning Canadian designer Dean Motter who, with the 1983 launch of his independent comic Mister X, introduced readers and his peers to an aesthetic that married Bauhaus, Art Deco, and futurist sensibilities with a very strong modern graphic design inclination. Mister X‘s commitment to retro-futurism extends to the writing: The imagined future tales featured in Mister X are compact and taut, informed by the snappy patter of the pulp fiction of the early and mid-20th century.
Mister X is about more than just the adventures of the eponymous architect-turned-crimefighter (of a sort)—it is also about how urban design and architecture affect and influence the lives of the people who live in cities, a theme Motter has also explored in his other retro-futurist comics works such as Terminal City (previously reviewed here). The holiday-themed dual mystery in the first issue of the four-part miniseries Mister X: Razed (Dark Horse Comics)—what I can only describe as a delightfully morbid and violent take on O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”—exaggerates that theme to a hilarious level that borders on (intentional) self-parody. Tying this done-in-one tale together is Motter’s impeccable use of solid blacks and negative space to frame panels. This is subtle but effective stuff from one of comics’ graphic design elite.
The timing of this issue’s late February release seems odd and out of sync with its Christmas theme, but this is just picking nits—good comics know no season. Self-contained and accessible for the reader new to Motter’s oeuvre, Mister X: Razed #1 is a welcome return to the world of Radiant City and a perfect opportunity for readers to (re)familiarize themselves with one of contemporary comics’ most underrated stylists.