REVIEW – Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly

In the “Page Process” backmatter of Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly, the first volume collecting in print the Valkyrie Squadron webcomic, creator Jules Rivera goes over the various stages of bringing a page to life.  It’s a reminder that she is one of these obnoxiously talented people that has mastered every aspect of the creative process, and so Valkyrie Squadron stands as an unfiltered showcase of her authorial voice.

We’ll start by taking a look at Jules Rivera the writer.  This collected edition gives us a brief prologue that helps to set the scene and give this world context.  Here, Rivera effectively creates a portrait of a war in the distant future, waged in space, with humans battling robotic drones, that still manages to draw parallels with the wars going on in the world today, complete with questions  about beurocracy and the soldiers’ belief in the war they’re fighting.  Even the desert-like setting further puts us in mind of battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This opening sequence, with its slower pace and focus on character dynamics, is very much welcome, as the first chapter of the story proper begins in media res, launching us right into the action.  Rivera wisely avoids the mistake of opening with some hefty exposition about the history of the war (we get a sense that will come later), instead beginning with a bang, with an action-packed rescue mission that tightens the scope to one particular squadron engaged in this massive war.  It’s a set-up that puts me in mind of the Gears of War series, but with the blokey-blokey macho overload those games can sometimes veer into neutralised by the Valkyrie Squadron being made up entirely of women.

In a time when there is a lot of talk in the comics world about a lack of female characters in prominent roles, this predominantly female ensemble has the potential to create a diverse cast of female leads.  However, aside from some likeably nuanced work done with optimistic team leader Priscilla Vega and foul-tempered Casey Anders, the team feel a bit underdeveloped.  Hopefully future instalments will go further into the personalities of Jocelyn Gomez and Adia Ukpo, giving them traits that make them distinct.  Both shady authority figure Commander Duri and rescued survivor of a drone attack Eve have limited panel-time here, but are given some intriguing foreshadowing that suggests they’ll become a lot more compelling as the story continues.  Ironically enough for a female-led book, the male characters fare better, with uber-jock Leon Zantha providing a few laughs and Trey Zantha proving to be an interesting foil who’s viewed in starkly contrasting ways by the various members of Valkyrie Squadron.

Moving on to Jules Rivera the artist, and I have to say this may be the hat she wears best.  Rivera’s linework evokes a latter-day John Romita Jr vibe, but with a bit more of a cartoony streak.  Her sweeping, widescreen panel layouts create an epic scope, and also help give the reading experience a brisk, exciting pace.  And aside from the occasional awkward cross-eyed moment, the facial expressions are fantastic.  There are numerous comedy beats peppered throughout the chapter, and more often than not, it’s Rivera’s faces that sell them, from Priscilla’s glances of confusion or exasperation, to Leon’s wide, vacant, puppy-dog eyes and idiotic grin.

There is another aspect of the art I want to take a moment to acknowledge, particular in light of my recent criticism of the cheesecake visuals of Catwoman #1: the costume design.  It’s refreshing seeing the women wearing the same costumes as the men, with outfits that are designed for practicality rather than the titilation factor.  This is the kind of thing that ideally we could take for granted, so maybe it’s a sad state of affairs when such costume design as this is marked out for praise.  But all the same, good work by Jules Rivera here.

Unfortunately, Jules Rivera the colorist doesn’t fare quite so well.  Basically, the colors do their job competently enough.  But there is a certain flatness and lack of texture in places, dulling the expressiveness and detail of the pencils.  I would also suggest that the palette is at times a bit bright and based too much around primary colors.

Jules Rivera the letterer does well.  The colored word balloons was a bit hard to get used to at first, but when it became clear that the shading of the balloons was shifting to fit the ambience of the scene they were featured in, the decision became more understandable.

But it should perhaps be mentioned that Jules Rivera did not work entirely alone on Valkyie Squadron.  Josh Finney is credited as providing “Sci-Fi Textures and HUDs” to the story, which I imagine means he offered a contribution to the design and aesthetic of the pages.  If this is the case, then he’s done good work, giving the comic a futuristic vibe that might actually make Valkyrie Squadron a better fit for the computer screen than the printed page.

Overall, I found Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly to be a highly enjoyable introduction to this world.  The webcomic is updated twice a week, but I’d say this first chapter – and the extras included in the package – are still a worthwhile purchase to have in print.  Jules Rivera proves to be a talented creator in every stage of the creative process, and I’m interested to see where her story goes next.

Valkyrie Squadron: Anomaly is available to buy from the official website.

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