Reviewed this week: Tyson Hesse’s Diesel #1 and Toil and Trouble #1 from Mairghread Scott, Kelly Matthews, and Nichole Matthews. [SPOILER WARNING: Reviews may contain significant spoilers]
Toil and Trouble #1 of 6 (BOOM!/Archaia)
Publisher’s description: The three fates—Riata, Cait, and Smertae—have always been guiding and protecting Scotland unseen, indirectly controlling the line of kings according to the old religion. When there is a disagreement in the sisterhood, Riata and Smertae will use men as pawns, and Smertae will direct Macbeth to a crown he was never meant to have.
Toil and Trouble, a six-issue miniseries by writer Mairghread Scott (Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters, Transformers: Windblade) and artists Kelly and Nichole Matthews is ambitious and literary in its scope, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth from the perspective of the play’s Three Witches.
More plot device than fully-realized characters in the source material, the Three Witches are given individual names—Riata, Cait, and Smertae—and distinct personalities in this comic. Much of the first issue is devoted to introducing their complicated relationships with each other as well as hinting at their heretofore unseen, expanded role in the events leading up to Macbeth’s ascension to the Scottish throne. This approach serves the dual purpose of emphasizing their Nordic inspiration—they are more akin to the Norns of Norse mythology here than they are to Shakespeare’s passive seers—and giving the Three Witches depth and agency.
Kelly and Nichole Matthews’ designs for the Three Witches complement Scott’s approach to the text. Instead of wizened old crones, Riata, Cait, and Smertae are depicted as humanoid elementals (the zoom-in “special effects” that show off the Witches’ powers to affect people and objects are especially interesting). The art team does an equally skilled job in rendering the comic’s non-supernatural characters: Offhand, the costumes and props look period- and region-appropriate and characters can easily be distinguished from each other. Also worth noting is how well the Matthews duo renders horses and woodland animals—an underrated but especially important skill when it comes to comics set in the medieval period. A double-page spread depicting the battle between Macbeth’s and Macdonwald’s forces is especially impressive, showcasing all the strengths of the art team in a single, breathtaking image.
The greatest feat the creative team has seemingly pulled off with this first issue, however, is that despite the novelty of their treatment of Macbeth, they have not, as far as I can tell, contradicted any of the fundamental elements of the play’s underlying theme of the perils of unchecked power. But where that theme was originally applicable only to the human cast, they’ve extended that theme to include the Three Witches.
Toil and Trouble #1 hints at the beginning of what should be a brilliantly executed reinterpretation of a literary classic. Recommended.
Tyson Hesse’s Diesel #1 of 4 (BOOM! Box)
Publisher’s description: Diandra Diesel isn’t very good at anything. The daughter of the late Tungston Diesel, she has yet to live up to her father’s great reputation. Her childhood rival has inherited control of her family’s airship and left Diandra the only job she’s qualified for: picking up the trash. But all that changes when a mysterious flying engine crashes into Diesel’s life and takes her on a journey through the skies.
Creating an arresting first issue for a series is no easy thing. In the space of your standard comic book’s 22 pages, a creative team must (a) introduce the protagonist and at least some of the main supporting cast, (b) effectively establish the setting, (c) lay the groundwork for the plot while not overwhelming the reader with unnecessary exposition, (d) offer enough of a story so that the reader doesn’t come away unsatisfied with the amount of material, and perhaps most difficult and important of all, (e) convince the reader to come back for the second issue.
Even the best and most consistent comics creators don’t always hit those marks. Indeed, anyone who has read my reviews of various first issues will note that many of my recommendations of series based on first issue readings are predicated on a familiarity with the creators’ previous works. That is, a particular series’ first issue may fail to convince me to return for the second issue based on its own merits, but there are certain veteran creators whom I trust to deliver on the subsequent follow-through, and I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, or at least another issue or two to get me on board a series.
Diesel artist-writer Tyson Hesse hasn’t yet earned that type of cachet with me, unfamiliar as I am with his comics bibliography—although I do remember comics and animation writer Frank Gibson singing his praises at the 2014 Vancouver Comic Arts Festival—so when I say that I’m definitely interested in seeing where he takes the four-issue miniseries with the second issue, it is because he has genuinely intrigued me with his craft in the premiere offering.
Diesel seemingly takes inspiration from the world of shōnen manga and anime (and I’m not just referring to Hesse’s use of the so-called “Excalibur face”). Diadra Diesel is a prototypical shōnenmanga protagonist: She is young and has some pronounced character flaws (in her case, a sense of entitlement and a wholly unearned confidence in her abilities) but there are hints that her heart is in the right place. At this point, it appears that Diesel will be about Diadra’s march to maturity, as she has to rapidly learn how to deal with new responsibilities brought on by an impending conflict.
If that sounds somewhat formulaic, well, it is. But genre fiction—whether we’re talking about superhero comics or action-oriented shōnen manga—is really more about execution than genuine novelty. What Hesse has done with the comic’s funny dialogue, sympathetic characters, expressive figures and faces, and impressively coherent sense of design, is make the reader forget that this might be a story he or she may have already read before. Diesel’s narrative motifs may be familiar, but the elevated level of cartooning craft on display is a true revelation. Recommended.