REVIEW: Doc Unknown #1

It’s been a while since I read anything from Fabian Rangel Jr.  His werewolf miniseries Extinct was one of my earliest creator-owned comic reviews, where I first noted Fabian as a developing comic book writer worth keeping an eye on.  Then his graphic novel Fall followed through on that initial promise, a poignant tale of childhood, friendship and the loss of innocence (and aliens!) that remains one of the best comics I’ve ever reviewed here.  But since Fall I haven’t had the pleasure of reading anything new from Rangel Jr.  I know he’s had projects, but I haven’t had access to them here in Scotland.  Thank goodness then for Comixology, from which I was able to download the first issue of his latest project, Doc Unknown – or, to give it its full title, Doc Unknown in the Museum of Madness.  It’s been a while, but thankfully it was worth the wait!

In his afterword, Fabian describes Doc Unknown as a mash-up of everything he loves about comics, crammed with everything he would want from a comic as a reader.  And that unbridled excitement and energy is certainly reflected in the pages contained within this first chapter.  Doc Unknown is a pulp hero in the vein of Doc Savage or The Shadow, a throwback to the proto-superhero adventures of the early 20th Century.  Tributes to such figures certainly have an established history in the comic books their exploits helped inspire, with Tom Strong one of the most acclaimed, and The Black Beetle the one I read most recently.  But while I found Francesco Francavilla’s pulp throwback to be beautifully-drawn but ultimately uninvolving, leaving me too cold to bother returning for a second issue, Doc Unknown felt in a lot of ways like The Black Beetle done right, taking not just the mould of the protagonist from that earlier era of storytelling, but also the simplicity of plot and denseness of incident and storytelling that made those tales so popular in the first place.

Doc Unknown #1 is not a comic that you could accuse of being decompressed.  In the first issue alone, we are introduced to an interesting villain – Killer Croc like gangster Snake – and given his backstory, while also setting up his evil scheme involving stealing a mystical artefact from a museum.  We’re also introduced economically to Doc Unknown, not by learning his alter ego – which remains a mystery as this first issue ends – but by seeing him kicking ass in action.  We get an elaborate fight scene between the two that involves Doc Unknown battling reanimated mummies and T-Rex skeletons, before culminating in some fisticuffs that see the confrontation resolved.  We’re then allowed time for aftermath and various plot threads to be resolved, as well as a supernatural element introduced with Doc’s ability to see and communicate with the ghost of a murder victim in the museum.  All while setting up a larger overarching plot of a Court of Owls type Illuminati of the rich and powerful out to get Doc because of a MacGuffin that comes into his position.  And we get another major new villain for him to contend with introduced too.  All in the space of a single normal-length issue, when you could imagine this amount of narrative getting dragged out across multiple issues these days.  All this, and we also get a 5-page backup story from the same creative team.  You’re getting more than your money’s worth in terms of content packed into one issue.

One of the things that makes Fabian Rangel Jr a great writer is that he doesn’t feel the need to announce his greatness.  He’s shown some real diversity in his output as he allows himself to take a backseat and let the story do the talking.  He proved more than capable of writing snappy dialogue and quickfire exchanges in Extinct, and showed some impressive narrative tricks for drawing out emotion in Fall, but here it’s all very pared back, minimal panel counts per page, and dialogue snipped back to bare minimum.  Doc Unknown himself is a taciturn figure, not really knowable, though what sense of his personality we do get suggests a more compassionate soul than the steely, hardened vigilante we might be used to, someone who seeks to comfort the loved ones of innocents killed in the crossfire, and even reaches out to understand the motivations of the bad guys he throws in jail.  But Rangel Jr doesn’t make a big song and dance of explaining that in poetic fashion.  It’s mostly implied.

I’ve talked about this as a pulp adventure tribute, but I’ve not used the term pastiche, as I don’t think this feels like an old-fashioned comic.  One of the downfalls of many comics that try to pay homage to eras past is that, even if in some form they succeed, they end up feeling like they’re of that era, and not particularly relevant to readers of this era unfamiliar with that past generation.  Not so with Doc Unknown, and I think that’s thanks to the dynamic artwork of Ryan Cody.  This is a book that never feels stuffy or old, with Cody’s slick, exciting imagery and bright, bold colouring making the whole aesthetic of the comic feel fresh and of-the-moment, something new that you could imagine a kid picking up and falling in love with.  Those minimal panel layouts I mentioned above really work in Cody’s favour, as he makes every page have this widescreen, expansive feel, the action almost spilling out of the page.  I felt the need to read this comic on my iPad horizontally, even though the pages are in portrait format, as each of Ryan Cody’s expansive story beats played out on a scope that demanded they be viewed in that way to appreciate them.  Another of the things that makes Fabian Rangel Jr a great writer is his keen eye for choosing great artists that perfectly fit the tone of the book in question.  And Ryan Cody joins Jethro Morales and Juan Romera on the list of his excellent artistic collaborators.  Mr. Cody now most definitely has a new fan in me.

Maybe it was the circumstance: I got to read this comic on my iPad sat outside on an uncharacteristically sunny day here in Glasgow (it started pouring with rain a couple of hours later, restoring balance to the universe), with “Giorgio by Miroder” from the new Daft Punk album playing on my MP3 player.  It all just felt right.  Maybe it was the fact that I’m already a supporter of Fabian Rangel Jr, and his name on the cover alone is enough to convince me to try a comic.  Whatever it was, I have to say I loved Doc Unknown #1.  A hugely fun breath of fresh air, appealing to readers young and old.  It’s deserving of a much bigger audience than it may get as a Comixology Submit product, and that’s a shame.  In my humble opinion, a savvy publisher would be looking at this as an undiscovered gem and scrambling to pick up the print distribution rights.  But for now, I’m glad I have Comixology, and that I’m able to sample treats like this and have access to burgeoning creators whose work I greatly admire.  It wasn’t easy to recommend his earlier work, great as it was, with its relatively limited availability.  But the digital marketplace is global, so I’m able to most heartily recommend this.  If you like good comics, check it out – it’s only 99 cents, what do you have to lose?

DocUnknown1Doc Unknown #1 is available now from Comixology.

REVIEW: Fall

I always feel like I’m late to the party when it comes to discovering the hot new talents of comics.  I became a fan of Jeff Lemire thanks to Sweet Tooth, when those in the know were already heralding him as one of the next comic greats in the wake of Essex County and The Nobody, for example.  But one of the good things about my review work becoming a bit more prominent and more creators getting in contact with me is that I now might get the chance to be there from the start, and watch a creator grow and mature into a master storyteller.  I think that might just be the case with one Fabian Rangel Jr.

Several months ago, in my review for the second issue of 215 Ink’s werewolf caper Extinct, I said that Rangel Jr was “a rising star to watch in the comics world.”  Well, if his latest effort – Fall, an original graphic novel, also from 215 Ink – is anything to go by, that star has risen.  Extinct was a series I enjoyed, with clever writing from Rangel Jr and some quality artwork from Jethro Morales, but Fall is a superior work.  It covers some similar themes – the isolation of high school, nostalgia for a bygone era (this time the ’90s, rather than the ’80s), and a mix of humor and horror.  But Fall has heart as well as wit, and in spite of the sci-fi elements, feels like a deeply personal tale.  The execution of the narrative suggests a writer who has grown in confidence as well as skill, his voice emerging as he gains a surer grasp of the medium with experience.

To offer a plot summary, Fall is about a lonely boy called Josh who befriends an alien called Russ.  Only it’s about so much more than that.  It’s about the strength of childhood friendship.  It’s about seeing the beauty in a world we float through and all too often take for granted.  It’s about the harsh realities of growing up, and putting away childish things.  This is a story steeped in such earnest emotion that it would take a heart of stone not to get caught up in it.  The narrative may not be set in the ’80s anymore, but that’s the decade the story seems to draw its influence from, reminiscent of such great childhood fables as Stand By Me and, of course, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  But it’s not all sentimental and saccharine, with an emotional gut-punch at the end that gives the warm glow that precedes it a bittersweet aftertaste.

Amidst all this praise for writer Rangel Jr, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fine work of artist Juan Romera.  I’ve praised Romera before, noting him as a standout amongst the stable of artists working on the Western anthology, Tall Tales from the Badlands.  In his story for that book, A Thousand Deaths, I noted a similarity to the work of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and the visuals for Fall have a certain Daytripper vibe to them.

Romera’s style is very simple, but that very much works in the graphic novel’s favor, given that dreamy, fable-like quality the story strives for.  The art strikes just the right chord of emotional resonance at all the key moments, from the stunning beauty of the autumn leaves in the eponymous Fall (it’s a title that works on so many levels, but I’ll leave it to you to mull  over them once you’ve read the comic yourself) to the big, round, expressive eyes of Russ.  I should note that Romera’s biggest triumph is the design of Russ himself: he’s suitably cute, cuddly and toyetic, but the battle armor and sharp edges to his features also suggest a little edge, giving him an added cool factor.  The rich, sepia-toned colors aid in enhancing that aforementioned warm glow of nostalgia, and Ed Brisson’s diverse lettering helps to give Russ a distinct voice.  Overall this is a very nice looking graphic novel.

215 Ink have progressed a lot this year, and I’ve watched their development with interest.  They seem to have placed their faith in an intriguing crop of emerging talent, providing for them an open community within which to grow roots.  And now, as a little time passes, we see some of that crop develop into big, impressive… creator trees (to exhaust that metaphor), with 215 Ink reaping the benefits of gaining the loyalty of these folk they saw potential in.  In finding a story to compare Fall to, the first one that springs to mind is Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Zot!  And people who know me and the mad love for that story will know that such a comparison would not be made lightly.

As a final illustration of just how much Fall blew me away, let me relate this anecdote: I have read many comics sent to me for review purposes, I’ve enjoyed most of them, and I’ve found a few to be genuinely great.  But Fall is the first one that I’ve read, then checked out the Previews code (it’s SEP111247, by the way), and seriously considered contacting my LCS about ordering it so I can buy a physical copy to own.  It’s that good.  And you should all be seriously considering doing the same thing.